Recent developments in the fiscal cliff negotiations should put to rest any hope that this process will produce a meaningful solution to the nation’s long term fiscal imbalance. For advocates of fiscal sustainability, the negotiation suffers from two serious flaws:
(1) The fact that the party leaders are still playing to their respective bases, rather than having serious, closed door discussions. Since real long term reform would be very complex and politically painful, it requires time to run the numbers and build support for the sacrifices required on both sides. If these activities are telescoped into the last two weeks of December, they cannot be accomplished effectively. What we are likely to see then is a deal lacking in specifics with numbers that don’t add up.
(2) Attention is mostly focused on avoiding the immediate emergency posed by the fiscal cliff and on the top two income tax brackets (the adjustment of which can only generate a small part of the solution). To the extent that attention focuses on the Armageddon that awaits us on 1/1/2013 or the morality of tax rates, less space is available to educate the public about the need to address long term sustainability issues.
To the extent that budget impacts are being considered, the discussion has focused on how to achieve $4 trillion of deficit reduction in the next ten years. The debate typically obscures the question of what “base” the $4 trillion in savings will come from. This base scenario is most certainly not current law – since that would include all the spending reductions and tax increases that compose the fiscal cliff. In fact any fiscal cliff compromise is likely to entail higher ten year aggregate deficits than those that would occur under current law.
Moreover, ten year scoring of budget proposals takes attention away from the most important fact. Under current policies or anything approximating them, the US will probably run deficits of several trillion dollars each year during the late 2020s and early 2030s. This is precisely when the greatest burdens will be placed on Social Security and Medicare because the maximum number of baby boomers will be both alive and retired. Since these big deficits will be piled onto an already large stock of debt, they are likely to trigger some form of sovereign debt crisis. Such a crisis would have devastating effects on taxpayers, government employees, beneficiaries and bondholders – as it would be manifest in some combination of sharp tax increases, deep spending cuts, inflation, and possibly an outright default on Treasury obligations. Some of these effects would probably trigger widespread civil unrest similar to the violence we have been seeing in Greece. Unlike today’s fiscal cliff, which can be avoided through simple legislation, this future crisis would be far steeper and far more difficult to side-step: revenue and expenditure would be forced to immediately converge due to the unaffordability of deficit financing.
Since I am a financial analyst and not a politician, the preceding narrative contains two serious flaws. I have told you that any crisis is 15 to 20 years away and that it is likely rather than certain. I would better command your attention by claiming that there will be an immediate crisis if nothing is done, but that isn’t credible. Since I am writing for a thoughtful audience, I am confident that you will read on.
Due to the existing low interest rate environment, debt service cannot become an unbearable burden anytime soon. Given the amount of global liquidity and the fact that US debt contains a substantial component of long dated bonds, there is no reasonable scenario under which rising interest rates will trigger a crisis in the near term. To say otherwise might make for a great rhetorical flourish on a talk show, but it just has no economic or mathematical basis.
In the longer term, a crisis is only likely rather than certain for a number of reasons. In general, it is fair to say that any long term prediction has to be qualified just because of the sheer weight of accumulated uncertainties. In this specific case, it is possible that we will be saved by some new innovation that sharply increases productivity thereby generating enough incremental revenue to get us over the hump. Another possibility is that interest rates won’t revert to post-World War II historical averages. Perhaps we have entered a new normal in which massive global savings will continue to compete for an insufficient supply of fixed income investments, or one in which large portions of the federal debt can be monetized without price inflation (due to declining monetary velocity).
On the other hand, there are also extreme scenarios that could exacerbate any future fiscal crisis. A medical breakthrough that significantly extends life spans under the current fixed retirement age system would greatly increase dependency ratios. A major war or series of large natural disasters could sharply increase deficits at any time.
Putting all these tail scenarios aside and focusing on outcomes nearer the median, the fact remains that population aging will probably cause a long term fiscal crisis in the absence of major reform. Failure to plan for this eventuality seems to me to be the height of irresponsibility.
Given the size of America’s fiscal gap and the division of power, the only politically feasible plan is one that increases revenues and reduces spending growth in multiple areas, including discretionary spending, Social Security and health care entitlements. Unless the plan distributes the pain across all areas, it will probably be either too small or unable to become law.
If voters demand government services that roughly approximate those now available, it will not be possible to hold spending to 18% of GDP – a limit suggested by Republican leaders in the 111th Congress. As more and more people draw Social Security and use Medicare services, spending will rise sharply, even if these entitlements are adjusted somewhat. Simply taxing the rich won’t be sufficient to fill the fiscal gap. Higher income taxes at all levels and/or new consumption taxes will be required. As a libertarian, I personally oppose taxes and believe that it would be both morally preferable and economically more efficient to cut spending enough to achieve a primary budget balance without increasing revenues. But since my party received 1% of the vote in the Presidential election, this plan will not be enacted. Instead, we will either have a plan that includes considerable, broad-based tax increases or one that doesn’t solve the problem.
Prevailing wisdom suggests that domestic, non-discretionary spending programs are individually too small and have too much political support to contribute much to closing the fiscal gap. Cutting them across the board may have adverse unintended negative consequences. Earlier decades have bequeathed us two ideas that can be used to achieve significant savings in these programs. Zero based budgeting, properly understood, involves a complete reappraisal of all spending items. It is designed to address the question of whether each program remains cost effective or is just continuing due to inertia. Because Congress is too politically conflicted to successfully implement zero based budgeting, it should delegate this responsibility to a bi-partisan commission as it did when base closings were required at the end of the Cold War. A politically neutral zero based budgeting commission could wring substantial savings out of domestic discretionary spending without disrupting truly valued services.
Advocates of military spending often remind us that defense is not a driver of the impending problem because it represents a stable or declining share of GDP – depending upon the base year used. However, if that base year was during the Cold War, the comparison isn’t meaningful. The country no longer needs to stare down the Soviet Union and its network of clients. Rather than exaggerate the threats posed by China, North Korea, Iran and al Qaeda, defense advocates should be supporting the elimination of Cold War oriented weapons programs that are not designed for today’s lesser security issues. Also, since the US represents a far diminished share of world GDP, its relative responsibility for funding alliances like NATO needs to be reconsidered. While it is true that entitlement spending will be the driver of future budget imbalances, there is no reason that offsetting savings cannot be found elsewhere in the budget. A dollar spent on defense has the same budgetary impact as a dollar spent on Medicare. The budget can and should shift away from defense and toward entitlements.
Social security proponents take a similar tack to the defense hawks: “our favorite program is not really the problem so let’s look elsewhere for savings.” Often the argument revolves around the fact that the Social Security trust fund is not expected to be drained for a couple of decades. But since the trust fund is simply money that the government owes to itself, it is not fiscally significant. More important is the annual gap between social security tax revenues and benefits. Until recently, this difference was positive, now it is near zero and by 2030, it will be negative to the tune of half a trillion dollars annually. While incremental reforms cannot eliminate this annual social security deficit, they can reduce it to the extent that added revenue and other budgetary savings can offset it. The most obvious reforms include making the retirement age a factor of life expectancy – as Italy has recently done – and making downward adjustments to benefit formulae.
While everyone agrees that Medicare is a huge budget problem, the solutions offered often fail to miss the fundamental issue this system poses – an issue that also applies in part to Medicaid and future Affordable Care Act benefits. The US health care system is unique in that it largely fails to use either of the two proven methods known to control costs. In a totally free market system under which patients are fully responsible for their own medical bills or insurance, cost growth is limited by the fact that many people will be unwilling or unable to pay for certain medical services. Since this results in richer people getting better care – an outcome that most people find offensive – all advanced countries have some form of government-sponsored third party payment. However, most countries that have government controlled health systems use non-price rationing to control costs. These rationing tools include waiting lists and “death panels” that deny certain types of care. A meaningful solution to Medicare and other health entitlements is going to require some form of rationing – either through greater patient responsibility as advocated in the Ryan budget or through a strengthened version of the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) included in the Affordable Care Act. A compromise approach might involve some sort of bimodal system in which beneficiaries could choose between a government -managed HMO (akin to the public option discussed during the health reform debate) and a market based option under which patients receive limited premium support.
Reforms of the type discussed here cannot be formulated and sold to the American people during a couple of weeks in the holiday season. They need to be well designed in order to limit adverse unintended consequences and carefully balanced to ensure that enough House and Senate votes can be cobbled together from those closest to the political center. In the absence of evidence that these planning processes are occurring, I am left with the assumption that any end of year package won’t avert the long term fiscal crisis we now face.