August 28, 2012If the United States of America came to you asking for a loan, would you say yes?
We recently spoke with David Wessel, economics editor of The Wall Street Journal and author of a new book, Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget. Mr. Wessel explained how the U.S. went from record budget surpluses to enormous deficits, and whether the country is likely to get its fiscal house in order any time soon.
In the late 1990s, some analysts were concerned about what would happen to the bond market once the federal debt was paid off—in, say, 2010 or 2015. What happened? How did we get where we are today?David Wessel: It's a really good point. I was there when Alan Greenspan warned Congress that we had to think about what was going to happen when we paid off the entire federal debt. That was in the early 2000s. Well, as it turned out, we solved that problem!
At that time, the Congressional Budget Office was predicting we'd have $6 trillion worth of surpluses over the 2000s. Instead, we had $6 trillion worth of deficits. They were off by $12 trillion. So what happened? Well, four things.
First, the economy did a lot worse than anybody expected; the housing bubble burst; we had the financial crisis; we had a big recession. That cut the income to the government and made them spend more on various benefits like unemployment. Second, Congress cut taxes repeatedly, and so there was less revenue than we had anticipated at the beginning of the 2000s. Third, the government spent more—a lot more. A couple wars, expansion of Medicare, the bank bailouts. And so, when you have less revenue coming in, you cut taxes, and you spend more than you had projected, you end up with a deficit. If you have a deficit, you have to pay more interest, so the fourth leg was more interest payments.
Just how deep is this "sea" of "red ink" today?David Wessel: Well, the deficit today is running at roughly $1 trillion a year. That means that the government spends a trillion dollars more than it takes in. That's a lot of money, and it's big measured against the size of the economy. Some of that reflects the fact that we have a lousy economy. But the problem isn't today's deficit, it's that if you look into the future and you see where government policy is headed and figure out what the deficit would be in a strong economy, well, then you discover that we have a big problem in the future that we haven't really solved, despite all the talk about it.
People get sometimes confused between the words debt and deficit, I've discovered. The debt, of course, is the total amount of money that the government has borrowed over the years. It's the accumulation of deficits year by year that give us the total federal debt. That's also a big number, and when we measure it against the size of the economy, we're approaching 70% of GDP [gross domestic product]—that's not in the danger zone yet, but we're headed there.
In your book, you paint a vivid picture of the way the federal government spends money. Does the typical taxpayer really understand the federal budget?David Wessel: No. I don't think the typical taxpayer understands the federal budget for two reasons. One is, it's really enormous. Four hundred million dollars every hour is a lot of money. Dave Barry, the humor columnist for The Miami Herald, once wrote that the reason people don't understand the deficit is that the words millions, billions, and trillions sound so much alike. He said we'd be better off if we talked about golf balls, watermelons, and hot-air balloons!
The second reason they don't understand it is because a lot of the political rhetoric is designed to make it less clear rather than more clear. And so, what I tried to do in the book is to lay out for people—there are some things that are choices, and there are some things that are facts. And I think sometimes they get a little confused in the political debate.
When you look at the surveys of the public, you find out that they think we spend way more on foreign aid and food stamps than we really do. A lot of people who are on Medicare and Social Security don't think they're on a government program. One Cornell poll found that 40% of the people on those programs said they weren't receiving any government benefits. So people are pretty misinformed, and I think that may influence the way they vote.
Do Americans understand just how little of the federal budget is actually under policymakers' control?David Wessel: I think that's a great point. About 63% of all the money we spent last year was money that was promised by past Congresses to pay various benefits. That is, in the past, Congress said, if you're eligible for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, farm subsidies, whatever—plus interest on the federal debt—that money would be paid.
And then they spend the rest of the year arguing about the stuff that comes up for annual review—the one-third of the federal budget that people kind of think of as "the government"—the salaries of government workers, the bullets they buy for guns for soldiers, and so forth. And the fraction of the budget that's on "autopilot" has been growing over time—and it's that part of the budget, particularly spending on health care benefits, that we're going to have to find a way to restrain.
A common concern is that if the U.S. doesn't get its fiscal house in order soon, we will no longer be seen as a good investment. Are you worried that investors here and around the world will stop buying Treasuries?David Wessel: One reason the deficit isn't a problem today is that the U.S. government has been able to borrow almost unlimited amounts of money at extraordinarily low interest rates. I don't think it's because the rest of the world has decided we have a great fiscal policy.
It's just that when you compare us to other people—say, the Japanese, who have a shrinking economy and even more debt relative to the size of their economy, or the Europeans, who can't even decide if they want to continue to have a common currency—we look relatively better. But I think that can't go on forever. I think very few people, thoughtful people, think that can go on forever. But anybody who knows exactly when it's going to end is making it up, because we don't really know whether it's six months away or six years away or 12 years away. But it seems to me a good principle of government policy should be, if something can't go on forever, you shouldn't build policy assuming it'll go on forever.
You write about the significant share of the federal debt that's in foreign hands. What are the policy implications of that?David Wessel: About half of the federal debt is now held by foreigners. About half of that is held by the Chinese, which is pretty extraordinary when you think about it—a country that doesn't have a lot of rich people; still a lot of people living in poverty—saving a lot of money and lending it to us so we can get cheap mortgages. I think it has already affected government policy, and I think it will affect it more in the future if we don't make some changes.
During the financial crisis, when the federal government essentially nationalized Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson essentially wiped out the shareholders and preferred shareholders of Fannie and Freddie. The shareholders were a lot of different kinds of investors; many of the preferred shareholders were U.S. banks. He didn't take a nickel from the bond holders of Fannie and Freddie, and in part that was because so many of them were the Chinese.
I think in the future we are going to find it difficult to do things that anger the Chinese as long as we are so dependent on them. It doesn't mean that they're going to cut us off one day, because they have a lot at stake in our economy, but I do think it's a problem.
The second thing is that we're paying a lot of interest on the federal debt, and that's money we give to other people. Used to be we paid it to other Americans; now we're paying it to other people and the rest of the world. And as more and more of the federal budget goes to interest, that means less and less of the money can be spent here at home.
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