Economic Growth

Bernanke: "our public finances are…on an unsustainable path"; "failing to respond to them would endanger our economic future"


Ben had a bad day

I keep telling people–don't listen to me say that we are out of money and our long-term fiscal outlook is "untenable"; listen to such noted non-libertarians as the president of the United States and the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Here's Ben Bernanke rocking the gloombah yesterday:

[I]n the United States, governments at all levels are grappling not only with the near-term effects of economic weakness, but also with the longer-run pressures that will be generated by the need to provide health care and retirement security to an aging population. There is no way around it--meeting these challenges will require policymakers and the public to make some very difficult decisions and to accept some sacrifices. But history makes clear that countries that continually spend beyond their means suffer slower growth in incomes and living standards and are prone to greater economic and financial instability. […]

If current policy settings are maintained, and under reasonable assumptions about economic growth, the federal budget will be on an unsustainable path in coming years, with the ratio of federal debt held by the public to national income rising at an increasing pace. Moreover, as the national debt grows, so will the associated interest payments, which in turn will lead to further increases in projected deficits. Expectations of large and increasing deficits in the future could inhibit current household and business spending--for example, by reducing confidence in the longer-term prospects for the economy or by increasing uncertainty about future tax burdens and government spending--and thus restrain the recovery. Concerns about the government's long-run fiscal position may also constrain the flexibility of fiscal policy to respond to current economic conditions. […]

Metaphor you!

Our fiscal challenges are especially daunting because they are mostly the product of powerful underlying trends, not short-term or temporary factors. Two of the most important driving forces are the aging of the U.S. population, the pace of which will intensify over the next couple of decades as the baby-boom generation retires, and rapidly rising health-care costs. […]

In Rhode Island, as in other states, the retirement of state employees, together with continuing increases in health-care costs, will cause public pension and retiree health-care obligations to become increasingly difficult to meet. […]

[P]rojections by the CBO and others show future budget deficits and debts rising indefinitely, and at increasing rates. To be sure, projections are to some degree only hypothetical exercises. Almost by definition, unsustainable trajectories of deficits and debts will never actually transpire, because creditors would never be willing to lend to a country in which the fiscal debt relative to the national income is rising without limit. Herbert Stein, a wise economist, once said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." One way or the other, fiscal adjustments sufficient to stabilize the federal budget will certainly occur at some point. The only real question is whether these adjustments will take place through a careful and deliberative process that weighs priorities and gives people plenty of time to adjust to changes in government programs or tax policies, or whether the needed fiscal adjustments will be a rapid and painful response to a looming or actual fiscal crisis. […]

Failing to address our unsustainable fiscal situation exposes our country to serious economic costs and risks. […] In the longer term, a rising level of g

It would be difficult to identify a specific threshold at which federal debt begins to pose more substantial costs and risks to the nation's economy.

overnment debt relative to national income is likely to put upward pressure on interest rates and thus inhibit capital formation, productivity, and economic growth. Larger government deficits increase our reliance on foreign lenders, all else being equal, implying that the share of U.S. national income devoted to paying interest to foreign investors will increase over time. Income paid to foreign investors is not available for domestic consumption or investment. And an increasingly large cost of servicing a growing national debt means that the adjustments, when they come, could be sharp and disruptive. […]

It would be difficult to identify a specific threshold at which federal debt begins to pose more substantial costs and risks to the nation's economy. Perhaps no bright line exists; the costs and risks may grow more or less continuously as the federal debt rises. What we do know, however, is that the threat to our economy is real and growing, which should be sufficient reason for fiscal policymakers to put in place a credible plan for bringing deficits down to sustainable levels over the medium term.

Cheery! Where's the big "but," you ask? It's actually pretty small, but still there:

Economic conditions provide little scope for reducing deficits significantly further over the next year or two; indeed, premature fiscal tightening could put the recovery at risk. Over the medium- and long-term, however, the story is quite different.

Whole suicide note here. Link via the Economic Policy Journal.