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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Unsustainable Structural Fiscal and Federal Imbalances in the U.S.: A Solution

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced on January 26, 2011 that the U.S. Government’s budget deficit for the year would soar to nearly $1.5 trillion, which represents $414 billion more due to the extension of the Bush tax cuts. The deficit had been $1.4 trillion in 2009 and $1.3 trillion in 2010. According to the New York Times, based on the CBO, “the deficits of $1.4 trillion in 2009 and $1.3 trillion in 2010 are, when measured as a share of gross domestic product, the largest since 1945 — representing 10 percent and 8.9 percent of the nation’s output.” The budget officials also projected the deficit for 2012 would be $1.1 trillion. These figures dwarf the budget deficits even of the 1980s.

In his State of the Union speech on January 26th 2011, President Obama called for a partial five-year freeze in domestic spending by the federal government — what the New York Times calls “a more gradual imposition of fiscal discipline, while still increasing some spending in education, research and other areas.” It is hardly imaginable how a freeze alone could make a dent where the debt is over $14.3 trillion—a figure that is scarcely conceivable to a human mind, let alone sustainable. It is not clear that the U.S. Government will ever be able to pay off the mammoth debt, let alone arrest the annual increases in the debt (i.e., the deficits).

For their part, Republican congressional leaders used the need for a budget and an extention in the debt-ceiling in 2011 to pressure Democratic leaders to adobt substantial cuts, rather than merely a freeze. As a result, President Obama himself came to urge $4 trillion in cuts over several years. Yet even as the Republicans, whose penchant for less government (and perhaps restoring federalism) dovetailed with more cuts in federal spending, this position too did not take sufficiently seriously the U.S. Government's deficit and debt, for tax increases were to be off the table. 

In short, neither of the major parties were taking the structural fiscal imbalance in the U.S. Government sufficiently seriously.  It is as though they were urging the use of a bicyle rather than a car or train to get from Orlando to Miami in Florida (and let's add just for fun, "in August"). Beyond other objectives (such as less government) being allowed to intercede, the proposals were not sufficient. Were reducing the structural deficits and debt of the U.S. Government the overriding goal, both trillions in tax increases and spending cuts would be instituted over many yeears. I contend that it to be a moral imperative that the debt amassed since the surpluses in the late 1990s be paid off before the mean age in the generation of 18 to 38 year-olds in 2000 retire. The remaining debt could be paid off in incremental installments over many years. Simply passing on our debt for others to pay would be as immoral as it is convenient. 

Fortunately for us, restoring a balanced federalism can facilitate paying off the debt in our lifetimes. Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal for block grants to the state governments for medicaid claims to shift that program for the poor from the U.S. Government to the states. It is thus in the direction of restoring a balance in American federalism. However, the block grant element retains the federal purse-strings, and thus falls short in this regard. Both in terms of reducing the federal government's annual deficits and restoring a federalist balance, Rep. Ryan should have proposed that the states both run and pay for medicaid by raising state taxes. It would be up to the respective voters of the states to decide the level of coverage and the amount of tax increase--taking into account their respective state's' fiscal position so as to deal with any deficit there as well. Medicare too could be transferred to the states, though it would not be prudent to leave it up to the states to fund it until after states such as Florida, California and Illinois have solved their own structural deficits. Policy decisions involving health-care for the poor and the elderly could thus be tailored to the circumstances and ideologies that tend to differ in a union on an empire-scale. However, federal taxes would not decrease accordingly on account of the structural deficits and the objective of paying off the accumulated federal debt. Once the latter is eliminated, the federal taxes could come down.

One might squauk, "But that would mean raising my state taxes without corresponding tax cuts at the federal level!" Correcto! The lack of symmetry here is the mirror image of the asymmetry that has been involved in running deficits of over $1 trillion for years and having amassed a federal debt of over $14 trillion. We like asymmetry when it is convenient but abhor it when it goes against our pocket books. This combination of sentiments is what we must counter, bottom-line.  


David M. Herszehhorn, “Deficit Forecast Nears $1.5 Trillion, Fueling Partisan Battle on Federal Spending,” The New York Times, January 26, 2011.

Stephen Gandel, “View from Davos: How Bad is a $1.5 Trillion Deficit?Time, January 27, 2011.