Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Not So Big Problem of the U.S. Budget Deficit

One and a half trillion dollars in added debt per year seems like an insurmountable problem, but is it? The red ink pouring out of Washington has so many people up in arms that our economy may falter or sink into a double-dip recession. Our leaders should review the 1930s before embarking on such austerity.

After World War II, the United States had a national debt of around 120% of GDP. The United States never paid any of that debt down... ever. Okay, there were two years with a small budget surplus, but that was so small it was only a fraction of a percent and the next year it was spent. So what gives? The national debt was huge in 1945, never paid down, and became a small, manageable debt in subsequent years. Why? And more important, how?

We need to fast forward to the 1990s and the largest budget surpluses our federal government ever had. (On percentage terms President Andrew Jackson paid off 100% of the national debt. It did not last long.) How did President Clinton run so many and so much surplus? It was simple really. President Clinton understood that the budget deficit can be eliminated by increasing spending slower than economic growth. It takes a few years, but it always works and keeps the economy humming.

Let me illustrate. If your national economy is $1,000 and the government takes in $90 in taxes and spends $100, you have a budget deficit of $10. If the economy grows 5% the next year to $1,050 and tax revenue collected remains the same in percentage terms, you collect $94.50. If spending increases 2%, your government spends a total of $102. The budget deficit for the year is $7.50, a decline of 25% in your budget deficit.

When using really big numbers, like the size of our real economy and government finances, the numbers are compelling. The federal government can spend more and actually be financially in a better fiscal position as the debt is a smaller percentage of the economy. Running a budget surplus can injure a national economy, especially in weak economic times. The real trick is to increase the total national debt less than the economy grows.

During a recession the economy shrinks so the debt burden grows fast and scares politicians and guys on the street. It shouldn't and here is why. Economic performance is measured in inflation adjusted terms. If the government reports 3% economic growth and inflation is 2%, the economy grew 5%. The government adjusts the numbers to reflect real growth. However, the economy grew 5% in dollar terms. If the national debt grew less than 5%, not he 3% reported, the deficit is easier to manage than the year before.

With all this said, $1.5 trillion deficits are not something we want to repeat each year. However, the sky is not falling. The national debt of the United States is well below all-time highs compared to GDP and is currently under 100% of GDP. The concern is how fast we are increasing the debt burden.

Congress does not need to irritate the President into lowering spending. Just increase spending slower than the economy grows and in a few years we are back in the black.

Now you can smile and enjoy the day.

1 comment:

  1. These are good points, but the premise is that the U.S. will continue to grow quickly moving forward. Since our economy is (very) largely consumer spending-based, we are relying on a resumption in consumer spending. But, with unemployment not improving and the housing market decimated, this recovery appears to be quite very far off. In reality, most of the consumer spending in the past was backed by housing prices or higher wages/employment.

    I think we will eventually recover in that aspect, but not for awhile.

    But, the main problem in the U.S. right now in my opinion isn't the budget deficit- it's the Treasury market. I don't mean to be part of the populist argument now (just recently became one), but everyone and their mother are flocking to Treasuries as a safe-haven and yields have plummeted. What happens when everyone unwinds that trade?