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Why America's return to $1 trillion deficits is a big problem for you

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 4/10/2018 Heather Long
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The federal government is on track to have a $1 trillion deficit in 2020 — and to continue running yawning deficits for years to come, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted Monday.

It’s a report that should make Americans concerned, especially younger ones.

On a basic level, this means the U.S. government is spending way more money than it brings in. This is not a new problem. The United States has been running a deficit every year since 2002, but the situation is about to get really ugly. The country has never run this high of a deficit during good economic times. If spending keeps up at this pace (and there is every indication that it will), President Trump and his successors are going to have less flexibility to pump up the economy during a downturn or even a crisis.

“This is unprecedented,” said Justin Bogie, senior policy analyst on fiscal affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

It doesn’t mean the economy or stock market will crash tomorrow. The United States is able to run such high deficits because the U.S. Treasury turns around and sells U.S. debt to investors around the world. Right now, a lot of people want to buy U.S. government bonds, even though America already has $15 trillion in debt owned by the public. But the problem is no one knows when people might say enough is enough and stop buying U.S. debt — or demand much higher rates of return.

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Even if the nightmare scenario doesn’t materialize, deficits are a drag on the economy. Investors opt to buy government debt instead of making the type of private investments that create jobs or raise wages, economists warn.

Didn’t Obama run a $1 trillion deficit? Some may recall that the U.S. government ran trillion-dollar deficits each year from 2009 to 2012, but that was during a terrible economic period when America (and much of the world) was trying to climb back from the global financial crisis and ensuing recession. The government spent heavily to try to revive the economy.

Now growth is healthy, unemployment is extremely low (4.1 percent) and confidence is strong. In times like these, the U.S. government has almost always narrowed the budget deficit — or even runs a surplus, as it did from 1998 to 2001, the end of the dot-com boom. But instead of improving the government’s budget situation, Congress is going the opposite direction and adding to it.

“We are running up the national credit card when everything is going our way economically,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “It shows Congress has lost any will to make hard choices to fix near-record debt levels we’re already facing.”

What it means for you. To underscore how large the debt is getting, the CBO notes that by 2028, the debt held by the public will be at the highest level (as a percent of the U.S. economy) since World War II.

A day of reckoning is likely to come at some point where the United States will have to raise taxes or cut benefits and programs that many people have come to rely on — or some combination of both.

Many Americans under 50 are likely to face some pain from this, and the under-35 population will likely be especially hard-pressed to pay more to the government while getting back far less than their parents and grandparents did. Spending on everything from Social Security to roads, research and schools could potentially decline.

How worried should I be? The U.S. government hasn’t tested that level of debt — where debt held by the public equals the entire size of the U.S. economy — in the modern era. That’s why so many economists, from the left and right, have been warning Congress and the White House to act now before it gets that bad.

“The bigger the debt, the bigger the chances of a fiscal crisis,” CBO Director Keith Hall said Monday. “When do you start to fix a thing like this? The longer you wait, the more draconian the measures have to be to fix the problem. That’s the biggest warning.”

One of the places the U.S. government typically looks at first to cut back on is so-called “discretionary spending,” which means spending on education, housing for the poor, veterans benefits, scientific research, roads and bridges and other infrastructure, etc. The problem is that the CBO forecasts that, a decade from now, America’s interest payments alone will exceed discretionary spending on all nonmilitary items combined. That means it’s going to be harder and harder to find money in the budget to cut because the government can’t stop paying interest (unless it wants to default, which would likely trigger even worse economic consequences).

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Why do we have this problem? The United States, like many advanced economies, has an aging population (the share of people over age 65 is double what it was half a century ago). That means more spending on programs for the elderly, such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It also means fewer workers with jobs who are paying taxes to support all the older Americans. That’s a major driver of the deficits, but on the campaign trail, Trump said he would not touch Social Security or Medicare.

The government’s other major expenditure is on defense, part of maintaining its military supremacy. The Trump administration has pushed for large increases to military spending, seeking to build it up again after modest declines at the end of the Obama administration.

While Trump campaigned on reducing the debt, he and the GOP-led Congress have made the deficit worse in the past year, according to the CBO calculations. The massive tax cut, especially for corporations, is expected to cut government revenue by $1.3 trillion over the next decade, the CBO says. After taking into account rising interest rates, the tax bill passed in December will cost the country $1.9 trillion over that time period.

Then there’s the budget bill Congress just passed. It increased spending by about 10 percent for both the military (a GOP priority) and domestic programs (a Democratic priority).

The CBO added it up: What Trump and Congress have done since June is “estimated to make deficits $2.7 trillion larger than previously projected” in the next decade, the CBO wrote in its report.

What can be done about it? Various bipartisan coalitions over the years, most notably the Simpson-Bowles panel in 2010, laid out a path to address the debt that was attractive to many centrists: Make most Americans wait longer before they can collect Social Security. Raise taxes a bit (this could be anything from raising the Social Security or Medicare tax to imposing a tax on carbon or a special millionaires tax), and look for ways to trim Medicare and Medicaid spending by striking harder deals with providers and/or limiting some types of treatments.

These are not popular changes. But neither is getting into an economic crisis because the U.S. government has overspent so much for so long. Or facing a situation where millennials and younger generations have to pay off the debts of their parents and grandparents.

The Social Security Trust Fund for older Americans is projected to run out of money in 13 years, according to the latest CBO estimates. After that, the Social Security program will still have some money coming in, but not enough to pay full benefits for everyone. The Highway Trust Fund is expected to go broke by 2022, and the Social Security disability insurance program fund would be insolvent by fiscal year 2025, the CBO says, unless Congress takes action.

Some conservatives have argued for steeper cuts to social programs, while progressives tend to eye big cuts to military spending.

Congress and the Obama administration agreed in 2013 to what was known as “budget sequestration.” The idea was to impose mandatory caps on both social and defense spending that would go in place unless both parties came together on a long-term budget deal. The two sides never reached a deal, and so the caps went into place, driving down deficits during the final years of the Obama era.

Balanced-budget amendment? Another solution that has been floated is a balanced-budget amendment. Republicans in Congress plan to vote on it this week, although almost no one expects it to pass. It’s likely a symbolic vote for some lawmakers who want to try to show they are doing something to rein in the debt.

Many states have these, and there are calls to see if it’s possible to do one at the federal level, although it would require a change to the U.S. Constitution, a difficult process. It would also eliminate some aid to the economy in times of crisis. During and after the Great Recession, many states had to pull back spending sharply, cutting money for schools and, in some cases, having to lay off workers at a time when so many Americans were already struggling to find work. This situation can exacerbate downturns.

While many agree something needs to be done to get America’s budget back to a healthier level, even the so-called “budget hawks” look at the vote this week and shake their heads.

“Every person who supports the balanced budget amendment should be required to actually put forward a budget that balances,” said MacGuineas. “Congress certainly made terrible policy choices in past couple of months, starting with the gallingly irresponsible tax cut.”

Related:

Republicans consider a balanced-budget amendment

What Trump proposed cutting in his 2019 budget

In a U. S-China trade war, who has more to lose?

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