The Corner

CBO Budget: Enjoy the Dropping Deficits, Because They Won’t Last for Long

In the last few days, I’ve seen a few people argue that the falling federal deficit, which is real and good news, should mean we can raise spending again. One argument is that spending would boost the economy in the short term — which makes no sense if, as the president claimed in his State of the Union address, the economy is going strong.

Now, it certainly is true that the Congressional Budget Office’s latest budget and economic outlook for the next ten years does show the deficit dropping. In FY2014 the deficit was $483 billion; in FY2015 it’ll be $468 billion. These shortfalls are lower than projected a few years ago, and they’re much lower than the levels we’ve had since the beginning of the Obama presidency.

But it’s not time to start spending more. Here’s why:

Our deficits may have gone down, but out debt levels are still rising. In FY2014, debt held by the public was 74.1 percent of GDP — it was 35.1 percent of GDP in 2007. There too, there’s no hope that it will go anywhere but up: The CBO projects that debt will go from 74 percent today to 78.7 percent of GDP in 2025.

The CBO report includes a chart always worth staring at:

Last summer, my colleague Jason Fichtner and I wrote a short paper called “the U.S. Debt Crisis: Far From Solved.” Its findings remain relevant today:

As economists, we’re concerned about the negative consequences of excessive debt. But neither we nor any other economist can identify at what point high

debt levels become unacceptable to global credit markets. Nor can we reliably predict what form the resulting fiscal crisis will take. It could mean an inexorable deterioration of the US economy.25 Or it could be more abrupt, with creditors losing faith and pulling their funds from the United States overnight, throwing the country into a vicious debt spiral, another deep recession, and ultimately a lower standard of living here and around the world.

This outcome is not inevitable, but it grows dangerously more likely as policymakers delay taking action. Continued failure to reform the main drivers of current and future spending and debt—principally Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act—will eventually force deep and highly destabilizing policy changes. Only by acting soon and maintaining a longterm commitment to controlling spending can policymakers avoid a potentially irreversible decline in Americans’ standard of living.

That’s quite similar to the warnings in the CBO report itself.

Also, worth noting, the CBO lowered its projections of economic growth:

Last August, CBO projected real GDP growth averaging 2.7 percent per year for 2014 through 2018; CBO now anticipates that real GDP growth will average 2.5 percent annually over that period. The revision mainly reflects a reduction in CBO’s estimate of potential output and therefore of the current amount of slack in the economy. On the basis of the current projection of potential output, CBO now forecasts that real GDP in 2024 will be roughly 1 percent lower than the level estimated in August.

If current laws stay in place, spending for Social Security and the major health-care programs, including Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare, will grow faster than the economy. Of course, you never want government spending to grow faster than the economy that’s supposed to pay for it. 

Obamacare is now projected, as liberals have pointed out, to cost less than was originally projected — but that still doesn’t have anything to do with the law’s controlling health costs. It’s in large part because Obamacare enrollment is lower than previously projected and the people who did enroll gravitated to cheaper plans than expected.

Also, according to Ryan Ellis over at ATR, the CBO omitted to score 15 tax hikes in the health-care law. He writes:

Buried in Appendix B of the report is CBO’s attempt to provide an updated score of Obamacare. But that’s not what they did. They only scored the “coverage provisions” of the law, ignoring some fifteen tax increases which are also a part of Obamacare and its cost to taxpayers. . . .

List of tax hikes ignored in the CBO half-score of Obamacare

-3.8 percent surtax on investment income

-Hike in top Medicare payroll tax rate to 3.8 percent

-Medicine cabinet tax

-Additional surtax on health savings account (HSA) distributions

-Cap on flexible spending accounts (FSAs)

-Medical device tax

-High medical bills tax

-Tanning tax

-Tax on employer retiree drug coverage in Medicare

-Charitable hospital tax

-Pharmaceutical manufacturers tax

-Health insurance tax

-Tax on executive compensation in the health sector

-”Black liquor” tax hike

-Codification of “economic substance doctrine”

All these tax increases can be read about in detail here.

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