A few days ago, I reported that the deficit and debt had steadily declined during Obama’s tenure. A reader pointed out that although we have seen the deficit dramatically reduced, so long as there is any deficit at all, the debt continues to grow.
He was absolutely right, of course–my mind was evidently elsewhere when I wrote that particular sentence. (It is a bit worrisome that, as I grow older, my mind increasingly takes these small trips to…somewhere.) The question that naturally arises, then, is: as the Obama Administration increasingly tames the deficit, how worried should we be about the debt?
About those projections: The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It’s true that the fact that we’re still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow — but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.
Things are expected to deteriorate after that, mainly because of the impact of an aging population on Medicare and Social Security. But there has been a dramatic slowdown in the growth of health care costs, which used to play a big role in frightening budget scenarios. As a result, despite aging, debt in 2039 — a quarter-century from now! — is projected to be no higher, as a percentage of G.D.P., than the debt America had at the end of World War II, or that Britain had for much of the 20th century.
So perhaps we need not freak out about the debt, but still, it would be nice to eliminate it entirely. (Had W. left Clinton’s tax rates in place and not taken us into a costly and unnecessary war of choice, the debt was on track to disappear…but that was then and this is now…). So how much pain would we need to endure now in order to at least stabilize the debt–to keep it at its current ratio to GDP? Krugman has that information also:
Still, rising debt isn’t good. So what would it take to avoid any rise in the debt ratio? Surprisingly little. The budget office estimates that stabilizing the ratio of debt to G.D.P. at its current level would require spending cuts and/or tax hikes of 1.2 percent of G.D.P. if we started now, or 1.5 percent of G.D.P. if we waited until 2020. Politically, that would be hard given total Republican opposition to anything a Democratic president might propose, but in economic terms it would be no big deal, and wouldn’t require any fundamental change in our major social programs.
These facts would be comforting–if the people screaming bloody murder over the terrible, horrible, menacing debt were genuinely concerned about fiscal policy–and not motivated by partisan rancor or personal gain.