Market Watch: Beware America's Soaring Public Debt
Article by Michael J. Boskin in Market Watch
America needs to rein in its soaring national debt. But President Joe Biden seems eager to do just the opposite. The risks are too big to be ignored.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, President Barack Obama ran the largest budget deficits of any president since World War II (adjusting for the automatic revenue and outlay effects of the business cycle). His successor, Donald Trump, surpassed him.
Biden plans to top them both. Though America’s gross federal debt now stands at 107% of gross domestic product—a post-WWII record—the Biden administration’s 2022 budget has the country running by far the largest-ever peacetime deficits.
Persistently large deficits
To be sure, I support policies to mitigate the short-run economic pain caused by a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and help spur recovery, as long as the long-run cost is reasonable. But Biden’s spending plans don’t meet that condition. Instead, they would create huge deficits that persist long after the economy is back to full employment.
Biden claims his proposals will add only modestly to the public debt (which is set to grow anyway, owing primarily to ever-rising expenditure on Social Security and Medicare). But there are good reasons to believe otherwise.
For starters, the Biden administration hopes to offset higher spending by increasing corporate and capital-gains taxes. But these tax hikes are unlikely to pass an evenly divided U.S. Senate as proposed. Moreover, such taxes are particularly harmful to growth, so if some version of them is enacted, the Biden administration will likely find that its revenue projections were overly optimistic.
Biden’s spending proposals also include several expensive entitlements, such as improved home care for the elderly and people with disabilities, universal free preschool, and two years of free community college for young adults. History suggests that such programs are likely to become permanent, with costs that grow far in excess of projections.
No free lunch
Some argue that the U.S. has nothing to worry about. Deficits supposedly don’t much matter when an economy borrows in its own currency; the Federal Reserve just needs to buy up the debt from the Treasury. And with government-borrowing rates lower than the projected growth rate, the debt can be rolled over forever. Deficit finance becomes a “free lunch.”
These claims merit considerable skepticism. Historically, huge debt buildups have usually been followed by serious problems: sluggish growth, an uptick in inflation, a financial crisis, or all of them. We cannot be certain which problems will occur or what debt-to-GDP ratio will signal trouble for which countries. And the U.S. does have the advantage of issuing the world’s leading reserve currency. But inflation risks are rising—a trend that more deficit-financed spending will only accelerate.
Higher debt also increases the temptation to stoke inflation, particularly if foreigners hold a large share of it.
Run out of ammo
Sooner or later, there will be another crisis. If the U.S. government continues to expand its debt now, lack of fiscal capacity could hamstring its policy responses when the economy really needs the support.
The content of Biden’s spending proposals is not encouraging on this score. Consider the $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. It is billed as an “infrastructure bill,” yet only a small percentage of the spending it includes would go toward traditional infrastructure.
In the near term, strong economic growth could shield the Biden administration from the consequences of its reckless spending. But if its mediocre long-run growth forecasts prove accurate—or worse, turn out to be ......
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