If the Deficit Disappeared, Where Would the Deficit Hawks Find Work?

November 14th, 2012
in Op Ed

by Dean Baker, CEPR

That doesn't seem likely at the moment, but there would be some real justice in this story. After all, the deficit hawks have used the deep pockets of their backers and their connections with prominent politicians and media figures to completely misrepresent the reality about the deficit.

The story of near-term deficit, as every real budget wonk knows, is the story of a collapsed economy. When the economy weakens, tax collections fall and payments for programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps rise. In addition, we also had explicit counter-cyclical policies, like the stimulus and the payroll tax cut, that were designed to boost the economy but also added to the deficit.

Follow up:

Click to enlarge

As can be seen, the deficit in 2007 was a modest 1.2 percent of GDP. An amount that can be sustained literally forever. Deficits were projected to remain low, until the scheduled ending of the Bush tax cuts in 2011 pushed the budget into surplus in fiscal 2012.

The reason that we didn't follow this path was the economic plunge that followed the collapse of the housing bubble. There were no big new permanent government programs or tax cuts pushing up the deficit in the last four years. It was the economic collapse pure and simple. The implication of this graph is that if we fix the economy we fix the deficit, end of story.

While this is fairly straightforward, our deficit hawk friends have their long-term deficit story hidden up their sleeve. This is the line that if we don't do something about Social Security and Medicare, then we will soon have an unbearable debt burden.

This one is misleading since it really is a story about rising health care costs making Medicare, Medicaid and other public sector health care programs unaffordable. The story here should be to focus on fixing the health care system, not running around yelling about soaring deficits.

But there is potentially bad news for the deficit hawks here also. Health care costs have moderated sharply in the last few years. While this undoubtedly is partly due to the impact of the recession, the moderation has continued long enough that it is difficult to believe that we are not already on a slower health care cost growth path. Certainly costs are coming in well below thhe projections of a few years ago.

Click to enlarge

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis.

If this is true then the deficit hawks are in a desperate race. At some point the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) will have to adjust its cost growth projections downward to correspond to a lower trend in health care cost growth.

When CBO does make this adjustment, the projections of long-term deficits will shrink by tens of trillions of dollars and the budget hawks' horror stories will vanish. They will no longer be able to tell us how we have to be responsible by gutting our childrens' Social Security and Medicare to save them from the burden of a crushing debt.

In this context it is easy to see the urgency around the message of the Campaign to Fix the Debt and the other organizations pushing for the overhaul of Social Security and Medicare. If they are not able to pull off their scam now, they may lose the opportunity forever. For them, that is a crisis.


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Analysis and Opinion articles by Dean Baker

About the Author

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He is frequently cited in economics reporting in major media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, and National Public Radio. He writes a weekly column for the Guardian Unlimited (UK), the Huffington Post, TruthOut, and his blog, Beat the Press, features commentary on economic reporting. His analyses have appeared in many major publications, including the Atlantic Monthly, the Washington Post, the London Financial Times, and the New York Daily News. He received his Ph.D in economics from the University of Michigan.

Dean has written several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. His other books include Taking Economics Seriously (MIT Press), which thinks through what we might gain if we took the ideological blinders off of basic economic principles, False Profits: Recovering from the Bubble Economy (PoliPoint Press, 2010) about what caused - and how to fix - the current economic crisis. In 2009, he wrote Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy (PoliPoint Press), which chronicled the growth and collapse of the stock and housing bubbles and explained how policy blunders and greed led to the catastrophic - but completely predictable - market meltdowns. He also wrote a chapter ("From Financial Crisis to Opportunity") in Thinking Big: Progressive Ideas for a New Era (Progressive Ideas Network, 2009). His previous books include The United States Since 1980 (Cambridge University Press, 2007); The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer (Center for Economic and Policy Research, 2006), and Social Security: The Phony Crisis (with Mark Weisbrot, University of Chicago Press, 1999). His book Getting Prices Right: The Debate Over the Consumer Price Index (editor, M.E. Sharpe, 1997) was a winner of a Choice Book Award as one of the outstanding academic books of the year.

To Know More About Dean Baker, Go to "Dean's Biography" and/or "Wikipedia"

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