Presidents get too much blame when things go poorly and too much credit when they go well.

ObamaThe latest deficit news is all positive. Fiscal year 2014 will be the fifth straight in which the federal deficit has declined as a share of GDP. The deficit was 10.8 percent of GDP in Barack Obama’s first year, a scary statistic. This year it will be 2.9 percent, below the four-decade average of 3.1 percent. Growth in the rate of health care spending is moderating. In 2006, the Congressional Budget Office thought federal spending per health care recipient would rise to $14,000 in 2014; instead this year’s actual will be $11,500. Projections now call for a mild decline in federal health care spending: see Figure 1-4.

Presidents get too much blame when things go poorly and too much credit when they go well. But since Obama was blamed for the deluge of red ink, he should now be credited for an improved national fiscal picture. Since Obama was broadsided for saying ObamaCare would have a positive effect on health care spending, he should be praised now that federal health care costs are in fact moderating.

Here’s the rub. All that’s happening is decline of the rate at which national money problems accumulate. Debt is not being paid down. The same Congressional Budget Office study cited above shows a bleak long-term forecast. National debt held by the public (the serious kind, government-to-government debt means less) is $12.8 trillion; at the current pace, that will increase another $7.2 trillion in the coming decade. So a debt that’s taken 225 years to get to where it is today will jump another 56 percent in just the next 10 years. That’s the improved picture!

These numbers assume the Fed can maintain “zirp” — zero interest rate policy. If zirp gets zapped, debt-service costs on federal borrowing will rise and red ink will run in rivers. Meanwhile, health care subsidies aren’t vanishing, rather, ballooning more slowly than feared. The CBO projects that on the current course, by 2024 federal payments for Medicare, Medicaid and ObamaCare will exceed Social Security spending.

With national elections this year and in 2016, some candidates might campaign on a theme that sounds like this: The debt problem is fixed, so let’s increase spending, especially, let’s increase entitlement benefits. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a possible presidential contender, already has said she thinks Social Security benefits should be increased. That would accelerate the rise of government debt; it seems Sen. Warren doesn’t want to bankrupt the young in the future, she wants to bankrupt them right now! Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has said he favors increasing payroll taxes not to make Social Security more secure for the long run, but rather, to spend all new revenue immediately.

Reasoning “the federal deficit is declining so let’s increase spending” is akin is reasoning “I finally have my credit card debt under control, so I’m going to get more credit cards!” But politicians love to hand out money that someone else will have to repay after they leave office. If Sen. Warren’s position sets off a pandering contest on the part of 2016 White House aspirants, the nation’s long-term fiscal position could get worse. That would harm average people, not the 1 percent. The rich won’t be the ones to suffer if Social Security or Medicare becomes insolvent.

Those who favor more government spending tend to imply that current entitlements policy is penurious. Wondering if this is so, I looked up the amounts the federal government spent on major Depression-era programs — the National Industrial Recovery Act and the 1935 Emergency Relief Act. These programs were most similar to the four stimulus bills during the Great Recession — one under George W. Bush, three under Obama — plus the TARP initiative and the Fannie/Freddie bailouts. I added up costs of the Depression-era bills, adjusted to current dollars and then multiplied by 2.5 to adjust to current population. (Since there are 2.5 times more Americans today, we’d expect federal programs to be 2.5 times as expensive.)

Result? Adjusted to current dollars and current population, the two big Depression programs cost $360 billion. The stimulus bills and the TARP initiative, subtracting for money repaid to the Treasury, plus the Fannie/Freddie bailouts subtracting for amounts repaid, cost about $1.4 trillion. That’s almost four times as much federal relief spending for the Great Recession as for the Great Depression, which is looked back on as a time of unparalleled federal generosity.

During the Great Depression, there were no federal welfare, housing or disability benefits: no TANF, SNAP, CHIP, SSI, unemployment compensation, foster care, housing help or EITC, the “negative tax” that sends checks to the working poor who owe no income taxes. In 2014, spending for that laundry list of entitlement programs will be around $821 billion — see Table 1-2. Once again adjusting to current dollars and correcting for population growth, that makes current federal entitlement programs for the poor, working poor and disabled about double, on an annual basis, the total cost of major Great Depression federal relief programs. And that’s before ObamaCare subsidies — a new entitlement benefit — which the same chart shows are starting slowly at $17 billion in 2014, then building to $137 billion per year a decade from now.

Now factor in Social Security, which didn’t exist until the tail end of the Depression, and Medicare, which didn’t exist till 1966. They come to $1.3 trillion this year — far more, adjusting to current dollars and current population, than big Depression-era federal emergency programs. Adding $821 billion and $1.3 trillion gets a current $2.1 trillion to help today’s Americans with their money problems — versus the adjusted $360 billion total to help Americans handle the Depression.

It’s good that government aid to individuals is much greater today than in the past; no one should have to live as millions did during the Depression. The point is that today’s federal spending for the poor, the working poor, the disabled and the retired is much more generous than commonly understood.

Nevertheless, you’ll hear it said that Social Security benefits should be increased because there is no immediate emergency in this program. There isn’t. But Social Security entails long-term planning. To say the program has no issues because there’s money in the coffers right now is like signing a 30-year mortgage with only enough for the first year’s payments and declaring that the mortgage is nothing to be concerned about.

When Obama took office, Social Security trustees said the system was funded through 2037. Now the year of reckoning is 2033, with the 75-year forecast requiring a 2.88 percent tax increase. That means payroll taxes for most Americans need to rise from the current 12.4 percent to 15.2 percent — a new $1,500 annual tax on the median household. Now it looks like Social Security’s disability fund (SSI) could fail as soon as 2016, while Medicare’s hospital fund will fail by 2030.

Social Security’s finances could be improved by lifting its tax cap — currently, only the first $117,000 of earned income is subject to payroll taxes. But even this soak-the-rich option will cover only about half of Social Security’s long-term deficit, as Brookings Institution fellow Bill Galston, who was domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House, warned recently. Some other reduction, such as lower benefits or a lower cost of living adjustment, would still be required.

As for SSI, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew suggested its failure could be postponed by diverting revenue from the main Social Security fund. That kicks the can down the road — more funny money today, worse debt later. In the last 15 years, adjusting for population growth, the number of Americans receiving SSI subsidies has risen 62 percent. It’s inconceivable that occurrences of bona-fide disability grew 62 percent in just 15 years — more generous entitlement formulas underlie the increase. Lew vaguely promised the administration would examine SSI eligibility formulas at some unspecified future time, while wanting more borrowing and spending now. If SSI begins to draw from main Social Security revenues, the 2033 day of reckoning will come sooner — but in somebody else’s administration.

“We’re all Keynesians now” is the saying in public policy circles. Are we? John Maynard Keynes advocated government borrowing and deficit spending during periods of slack economy, a view now universally held by Western governments. Those same governments conveniently forget Keynes also said that when the economy recovered, spending should be pared back to pay down any debt previously incurred.

Both parties in Washington have gotten really good at the borrow-borrow-borrow part of Keynesian economics; neither wants to deal with the spending cuts part that should come into play now that growth has resumed and unemployment has fallen. If the 2016 election turns into a pandering contest, the future could be mortgaged.

Everything in this long item assumes longevity does not increase, so the retired don’t demand benefits for a longer time. What if longevity increases? See my cover story in the new Atlantic Monthly.
Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback

I’m hoping that by posting this excerpt from Easterbrook’s column here, it will get more eyeballs than if I simply Facebook a link to TMQ, which most people likely ignore as unimportant football blathering.

Do I wholeheartedly agree with everything Easterbrook writes each week? No. I don’t even wholeheartedly agree with everything in this excerpt. But I do want more people to be better informed and thinking about these things.

2024-02-27: Broken links in this post have been removed and/or updated.

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