Most of official Washington was closed today in the wake of Snowmageddon. But not the Senate Budget Committee, which went ahead as planned with its hearing “Crisis and Aftermath: The Economic Outlook and Risks for the Federal Budget and Debt.”
The three witnesses were Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland (famous for her work with Ken Rogoff on the history of financial crises), Simon Johnson of MIT (famous for his blog, The Baseline Scenario), and yours truly.
The gist of my message was:
Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. If current policies continue, we will run trillion-dollar deficits in the years ahead—even after the economy recovers—and the public debt will rise faster than our ability to pay it. Persistent deficits and rising debt will undermine American prosperity, threaten beneficial social programs, and weaken our position in the world.
Those threats deserve immediate attention but our economy remains fragile. Payroll employment has fallen by 8.4 million jobs since the start of the recession, and long-term unemployment is at record levels. Recent data have provided some glimmers of hope—strong GDP in the fourth quarter and a decline in the unemployment rate in January—but our economy has a very long way to go.
Policymakers thus face a difficult challenge of balancing concern about current economic conditions with a meaningful response to our looming fiscal crisis. In thinking about that balance, they should keep five points in mind:
1. Don’t expect a rapid recovery. The recession does appear to be behind us, but the economy has much healing ahead of it.
2. Uncertainty has been holding the economy back. Uncertainty discourages investment and hiring and therefore undermines growth. The good news is that economic uncertainty has declined sharply over the past year, creating an environment more conducive to growth. The bad news, however, is that policy uncertainties are enormous. From expiring tax provisions, to uncertainty about the rules-of-the-road in the financial sector, to major policy initiatives on health insurance, climate change, etc., businesses and families are uncertain about the future policy environment. That discourages investment and hiring. Some of these uncertainties are unavoidable as Congress deals with important issues. But lawmakers should look for opportunities to reduce unnecessary policy uncertainty.
3. Persistent deficits and rising debts pose a serious risk to long-term economic growth. Concerns about the near-term economic outlook should not deter Congress from taking steps to strengthen our fiscal position over the next decade. Although major steps toward fiscal consolidation should not take effect in 2010 and 2011, Congress should begin to plan now for deficit reduction and debt stabilization in later years. That plan should include clear goals (e.g., a target trajectory for the debt-to-GDP ratio) and credible means for achieving them. President Obama outlined some steps in this direction in his budget, but I believe they fall far short of what is required. Under his official budget the debt would grow faster than the economy in every single year. That’s unacceptable.
The President has proposed that a fiscal commission be tasked with stabilizing the debt-to-GDP in 2015 and beyond. That proposal is worth serious consideration. However, I believe any commission should have a more ambitious goal–e.g., reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio to 60% by the end of the budget window. In addition, I wonder whether a commission created by executive order will have sufficient political legitimacy and power to have much effect.
4. A credible plan to reduce future deficits would help keep long-term interest rates low, thus strengthening the current recovery.
5. In the long-term, bringing our deficits under control will require both spending restraint and increased revenues. Spending restraint should receive greater emphasis both because spending is the primary driver of our long-run budget imbalances and because higher government spending may slow economic growth. Given the government’s existing commitments, however, it is unlikely that spending restraint alone can put our nation on a sustainable fiscal trajectory. As policymakers consider how to finance a larger government, they should therefore give special attention to making our tax system more efficient. That means thinking about ways to tax consumption rather than income, ways to broaden the tax base rather than increase rates, and, ways to tax undesirable things like pollution rather than desirable things like working, saving, and investing.