August 29, 2014

For Future Deficit Reduction, Policy Choices More Important Than Amount

In his press conference this week, President Obama suggested that policymakers only need to pass another $1.5 trillion worth of deficit reduction, on top of the $2.5 trillion already enacted, to stabilize the growth of the nation’s debt and, in his words, “finish the job.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, two well-respected fiscal policy organizations, basically agree with the President’s math, and there is nothing to quibble about in those calculations regarding stabilizing the debt.

However, that level of deficit reduction would hardly mean the “job is finished.” In fact, the whole idea that we can pinpoint a specific amount of deficit reduction necessary within a 10-year time frame can be a distraction from the fiscal sustainability conversation we need to have.

Getting caught up in exactly when the debt-GDP-ratio stabilizes, or whether we might miss that goal by a few percentage points at the end of the 10-year window, assumes a precision in economic and technical estimating that no entity actually possesses (even the CBO, whose respect and skill in these matters is second-to-none).

Our main emphasis should be putting more focus on ensuring long-term stabilization of the growth rate of the debt rather than the specific level at which it stabilizes. Ensuring that the level is generally stable over a broad period of time and is not projected to dramatically grow at a later point should be the top priority.

Since all available evidence points to our projected spending on Medicare and Social Security growing more quickly than the economy in the future -- pushing our debt to grow more quickly than the economy in the future -- we are a long way from achieving that type of stabilization. 

Additionally, because about 70 percent of the deficit reduction already enacted has come from the discretionary part of the budget, further action to control the long-term increase in debt will have to center around tax reform and changes in mandatory spending programs. 

It is unrealistic to expect that we can cut domestic discretionary spending much further, both because of political realities and the potential damage to the economy in the short term and to the country’s capacity to make investments necessary for long-term economic productivity. If the spending caps already in place hold firm, domestic discretionary spending will shrink to it’s lowest level as a share of the economy in over 50 years.

There may be more room for savings from defense spending as operations in Afghanistan wind down, but not of sufficient magnitude to alone offset the projected growth of mandatory programs. 

Unlike achieving savings from discretionary spending (where decisions are made annually), saving money in the largest mandatory spending programs needs to involve enacting actual policy choices as opposed to imposing simple caps. Furthermore, the changes will likely have to be phased in over a long period of time and thus, will not appear in the Congressional Budget Office’s 10-year scoring window.

Any attempt to make those changes look more dramatic within the 10-year window are likely to increase the use of gimmicks and/or decrease the chance to achieve maximum policy efficiency.  

That is why it is more important that policymakers focus on changes they can make for the long term than on achieving a precise amount of deficit reduction in the short term. In fact, one could easily envision a deficit reduction package that falls short of debt stabilization within the budget window but is still more fiscally responsible than a package that would lower the debt-to-GDP ratio within the window.

That could be because the first plan, for example, slowly phases in increases in entitlement program retirement ages, or perhaps paves the way for Medicare to shift away from fee-for-service medicine. Such changes would represent long-term victories against the growth of debt, but without much short-term deficit reduction.

So when evaluating the upcoming budget debates over the debt ceiling and the sequester, fiscal hawks should accept legislation that approaches the debt-stabilization target regardless of the exact scoring -- as long as it contains policy reforms that will reduce deficits in the long term.