It’s Not the Deficit, Stupid

From “That Terrible Trillion,” Paul Krugman, NYT:

“The first thing we need to ask is what a sustainable budget would look like. The answer is that in a growing economy, budgets don’t have to be balanced to be sustainable. Federal debt was higher at the end of the Clinton years than at the beginning – that is, the deficits of the Clinton administration’s early years outweighed the surpluses at the end. Yet because gross domestic product (GDP) rose over those eight years, the best measure of our debt position, the ratio of debt to GDP, fell dramatically, from 49% to 33%.

“Right now, given reasonable estimates of likely future growth and inflation, we would have a stable or declining ratio of debt to GDP even if we had a $400 billion deficit. You can argue that we should do better; but if the question is whether current deficits are sustainable, you should take $400 billion off the table right away.

“That still leaves $600 billion or so. What’s that about? It’s the depressed economy – full stop.

“First of all, the weakness of the economy has led directly to lower revenues; when GDP falls, the federal tax take falls too, and in fact always falls substantially more in percentage terms. On top of that, revenue is temporarily depressed by tax breaks, notably the payroll tax cut, that have been put in place to support the economy but will be withdrawn as soon as the economy is stronger (or, unfortunately, even before then). If you do the math, it seems likely that full economic recovery would raise revenue by at least $450 billion.

“Meanwhile, the depressed economy has also temporarily raised spending, because more people qualify for unemployment insurance and means-tested programs like food stamps and Medicaid. A reasonable estimate is that economic recovery would reduce federal spending on such programs by at least $150 billion.

“Putting all this together, it turns out that the trillion-dollar deficit isn’t a sign of unsustainable finances at all. Some of the deficit is in fact sustainable; just about all of the rest would go away if we had an economic recovery.”  Emphasis added.

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