Marc Goldwein: Don’t Believe the Myth That Debt Problem is a Myth

Oct 10, 2013 | Budgets & Projections

With the recent improvement in medium-term budget projections, some are trying to advance the myth that our debt problems have been solved. But as we've shown before, lawmakers still have a great deal of work left to do to put the budget on a sustainable path. In the New America Foundation's Weekly Wonk series, CRFB Senior Policy Director Marc Goldwein writes that this couldn't be further from true. Goldwein notes:

It is true that we have made substantial progress in addressing our short- and medium-term debt. In combination with the economic recovery, a number of spending cuts and tax increases enacted over the past three years have helped to stabilize debt levels as a share of the economy for the next five years. Yet temporary stability does not suggest a permanent solution. Though growth has slowed, our debt levels are the highest as a share of the economy they have been since the aftermath of World War II. At roughly twice the historical average, our extraordinarily high debt levels put us at substantial risk if interest rates rise and leave little flexibility if new needs or emergencies arise.

More frightening, our debt levels are likely to begin growing again sooner rather than later.  As health care costs continue to grow faster than the economy and the large baby-boom population enters retirement, the costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will balloon and revenue simply won’t keep up.

The result: debt is projected to exceed the size of the economy by 2035, double the size of the economy in the 2060s, and triple it in the 2080s.

As we've said many times before, the cure is well-known, but lawmakers will need to make hard choices. Without a plan that includes entitlement and tax reform, we are unlikely to be able to get our fiscal house in order. But despite the challenges ahead, there are some signs of hope. Writes Goldwein:

Despite the dysfunction in the halls of Congress, efforts to design and agree to these changes are already underway. The President’s budget took an important step by putting a number of entitlement changes into his budget, including the adopting of the chained CPI which would switch to a more accurate and slower inflation index for calculating Social Security COLAs, changes in the tax code, and various indexed provisions in the budget.. The relevant Committees in both Houses are taking another important step by looking at ways to reform and replace the so-called “sustainable growth rate” (SGR), which threatened to cut Medicare physician payments by about 25 percent. And perhaps most encouragingly, Republican House Ways & Means Chairman Dave Camp and Democratic Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus are working together to enact the first comprehensive overhaul of our tax code in over a quarter century.

The true test will be whether these efforts can be joined and ultimately enacted into law. Every bipartisan effort to reduce the deficit – the Simpson-Bowles Commission, the Domenici-Rivlin Commission, the Boehner-Obama discussion – found that the best way to get a budget deal was through shared sacrifice. Everyone has to be part of the solution, and all policymakers has to be willing to put their own sacred cow on the table. The retirement age must be on the table.

Click here to read the full piece.