The U.S. unemployment rate is down to 4.1 percent, and economic growth could well increase in 2018. Consumer and business confidence is high. What could go wrong?
A group of distinguished economists from the Hoover Institution, a public-policy think tank at Stanford University, identifies a serious problem. The federal budget deficit is on track to exceed $1 trillion next year and get worse over time. Eventually, ever-rising debt and deficits will cause interest rates to rise, and the portion of tax revenue needed to service the growing debt will take an increasing toll on the ability of government to provide for its citizens and to respond to recessions and emergencies.
None of that is in dispute. But the Hoover economists then go wrong by arguing that entitlements are the sole cause of the problem, while the budget-busting tax bill that was passed last year is described as a “good first step.”
Entitlement programs support older Americans and those with low incomes or disabilities. Program costs are growing largely because of the aging of the population. This demographic problem is faced by almost all advanced economies and cannot be solved by a vague call to cut “entitlements” — terminology that dehumanizes the value of these programs to millions of Americans.
The deficit, of course, reflects the gap between spending and revenue. It is dishonest to single out entitlements for blame. The federal budget was in surplus from 1998 through 2001, but large tax cuts and unfunded wars have been huge contributors to our current deficit problem. The primary reason the deficit in coming years will now be higher than had been expected is the reduction in tax revenue from last year’s tax cuts, not an increase in spending. This year, revenue is expected to fall below 17 percent of gross domestic product — the lowest it has been in the past 50 years with the exception of the aftermath of the past two recessions.
All of us have supported corporate tax reform. The statutory tax rate was too high, much higher than in other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development economies. However, because of deductions and breaks in the tax code, the effective marginal tax rate was similar to the average among competitor economies. The right way to do reform was to follow the model of the bipartisan tax reform of 1986, when rates were lowered while deductions were eliminated.
Instead, the tax cuts passed last year actually added an amount to America’s long-run fiscal challenge that is roughly the same size as the preexisting shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare. The tax cuts are reducing revenue by an average of 1.1 percent of GDP over the next four years. The Hoover authors minimized the cost of the tax cuts by noting that if major provisions are allowed to expire on schedule — certainly an open question, given political realities — they would amount to “only” 0.4 percent of GDP. Even this magnitude exceeds the Medicare Trustees’ projections of a 0.3 percent of GDP shortfall in Medicare hospital insurance over the next 75 years.
Just as entitlements are not the primary cause of the recent jump in the deficit, they also should not be the sole solution. It is important to use the right wording: The main entitlement programs are Social Security, Medicare, veterans benefits and Medicaid. These widely popular programs are indeed large and projected to grow as a share of the economy, not because of increased generosity of benefits but because of the aging of the population and the increase in economywide health costs.
There is some room for additional spending reductions in these programs, but not to an extent large enough to solve the long-run debt problem. The Social Security program needs only modest reforms to restore its 75-year solvency, and these should include adjustments in both spending and revenue. Additional revenue is critical because Social Security has become even more vital as fewer and fewer people have defined-benefit pensions. Medicare has been a leader in bending the health-care cost curve. Reforms to payments and reformed benefit structures in Medicare could do more to hold down its future costs.
As we focus on the long-run fiscal situation, our goal should be to put the debt on a declining path as a share of the economy. That will require running smaller deficits in strong economic periods — such as the present — to offset the larger deficits that are needed in recessions to restore demand and avoid deeper crises. Last year’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act turned that economic logic on its head. The economy was already at or close to full employment and did not need a boost. This year’s bipartisan spending agreement contributed further to the ill-timed stimulus. The Federal Reserve will have to act to make sure the economy does not overheat.
Several years ago, there was broad agreement that responding to the looming fiscal challenge required a balanced approach that combined increased revenue with reduced spending. Two bipartisan commissions, Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin, proposed such approaches that called for tax reform to raise revenue as a percent of GDP and judicious spending cuts. Without necessarily agreeing with these specific plans, we believe a balanced approach is the correct one. Start with spending goals based on the priorities of the American people and then set tax policy to realize adequate revenue. The Hoover economists’ advocacy of paying for large tax cuts with entitlement reductions would take the United States in the wrong direction.
Martin Neil Baily, Jason Furman, Alan B. Krueger, Laura D’Andrea Tyson and Janet L. Yellen are all former chairs of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.