March 5, 2021

Sure Cure for the Debt Problem: Economic Growth

It seems remarkable now, with all the End Times talk of debt ceilings and default, but it was only 11 years ago that the owners of that electronic totem, the Durst family, simply pulled the plug. The clock, a fixture since 1989, went dark after the federal government ended its 2000 fiscal year with a record $236.4 billion budget surplus.

Today, well — you know. We face the largest budget deficit the nation has ever known: $1.6 trillion, the equivalent of about 11 percent of our economy. And, whatever Washington does, many economists say the situation will grow only worse, particularly as Americans age and Medicare costs spiral higher.

But there is, in theory, a happy solution to our debt troubles. It’s called economic growth. No need to raise taxes or cut programs. Just get the economy growing the way it used to.

Good luck with that. Growth is in short supply these days, as new, dismal numbers underscored on Friday. Revised data showed that the recession took an even bigger bite of the economy than we thought. And economists are sizing up the risks of another recession.

“The basic issue is that the U.S. is on an unsustainable fiscal track,” says Dean Maki, the chief United States economist at Barclays Capital. “From that point, none of the choices are fun.” The most obvious choices, Mr. Maki says, are to reduce spending (ouch), raise taxes (yuck), let inflation run (gasp) or default (thud).

We wouldn’t need any of that if we could restore economic growth. If that happened, Americans would become richer and pay more taxes. Et voilà! — we’d pay down the debt painlessly.

Crazy as that might sound, particularly given Friday’s figures, the possibility isn’t some economic equivalent of that nice big farm where your childhood dog Skip was sent to run free. There are precedents.

Before its economy crashed, Ireland was a star of this sort of debt reduction. In the 1980s, Ireland’s debt dwarfed its economy. Over the next two decades, though, that debt shrank to about a quarter of gross domestic product, largely because the economy went gangbusters.

“Ireland went from being, you know, the emerging market in a European context, to a very dynamic economy,” says Carmen Reinhart, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and co-author of “This Time Is Different,” a history of debt crises.

The United States has done the same in the past, too. After World War II, gross federal debt reached 122 percent of G.D.P., the highest ratio on record. But over the next 40 years, it fell to about 33 percent. That wasn’t because some blue-ribbon panel prescribed austerity; it was because the American economy became much, much richer.

The same happened during the prosperous 1990s, which began with deficits and ended with surpluses. Former President Bill Clinton is often credited for that turnabout, as he engineered higher tax rates. But most economists attribute the surplus years primarily to extraordinarily rapid growth.

It would be lovely to repeat that experience today, and send our federal debt off to that farm with Skip.

But the structure of America’s federal spending is different now than it was in, say, the immediate postwar decades. Back then, growth helped to erase the debt. But remember that in the 1950s, the United States didn’t have Medicare. The population was younger, and Americans didn’t live as long.

Given the health spending obligations we face, and the debt overhang we’re already dealing with, growth rates would have to acquire something like Ludicrous Speed, as in the movie “Spaceballs,” to keep up. And, near term, even modest speed is unlikely.

Usually after a recession, growth snaps back quickly and the economy makes up for ground lost — and then some. That’s not the case this time, at least so far. In the 60 years before the Great Recession, the economy expanded at an average annual rate of 3.5 percent. In the second quarter of this year, it grew at less than half of that pace, putting us further and further behind where we would be if the economy were functioning normally.

These doldrums won’t last forever, but many predict that economic growth to come will be somewhat slower than it was before the recession, for many of the same reasons that our debt is growing so quickly — the aging of the population, for instance.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=f7633028f99871bac6838a48fed93b06

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