Can We Stabilize the Debt with Just $670 Billion in Deficit Reduction?

Feb 11, 2013Mike Konczal

During a radio debate in 1933, the British economist John Maynard Keynes said, “You will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income.” In an attempt to forget this lesson and repeat the mistakes of 1937, the United States is set to put the sequestration into motion in a few weeks. This package of quickly enacted cuts will try to balance the budget by destroying a million jobs in the next two years and taking a chunk of GDP off growth.

President Obama is likely to call for replacing this sequestration with a deficit reduction plan of $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years in his State of the Union tomorrow night. This is as the deficit is falling quickly, from 7 percent of GDP in 2012 to a projected 5.3 percent this year. Obama's target number would build off the $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction already in place through the Budget Control Act and fiscal cliff deal for a total of nearly $4 trillion.

But what if we needed significantly less than $1.5 trillion at this point? What number would be necessary, under what conditions? Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priority (CBPP) has called for $1.4 trillion. There’s been an interesting pushback against this argument from Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), who argues that CBPP’s numbers are far too high, and that the debt-to-GDP, or debt ratio, can be stabilized with less than half of that. Let's summarize this debate here.

If stabilizing the debt is the goal, everything depends on what we mean by stabilization. CBPP wants to stabilize the debt ratio with two conditions. The first is that it will be at the current rate of 73 percent, and the second is that it will occur by 2022, or within a 10-year window. Here is EPI's chart showing the current trajectory and the numbers proposed by CBPP and President Obama:

What Pollack notes is that if you relax either assumption, you can still have stabilization but at a significantly lower level of deficit reduction. If we relax the 73 percent requirement, and we target a debt-to-GDP level that is lower in 2022 than it was in 2018, we’d only need $670 billion dollars in deficit reduction, with $580 coming from policy savings (and the rest from interest). That's a lot less in brutal cuts while the economy is still weak. This would still stabilize the debt, as the debt-to-GDP ratio starts to decline. It would just stabilize it at a higher level.
 
What if we want a debt ratio of 73 percent, but we relax the time constraint? What if we worry less about an arbitrary 10-year limit and look at the long run? If we want to stabilize the debt outside the 10-year window at the current rate, we’d need a long-run deficit of 3 percent. That would only require $500 billion in cuts, of which $430 billion is policy savings. This is still long-run stabilization, which is what we'd want, rather than stabilization while the economy is still weak.
 
So we can have stabilization with significantly less upfront costs. But why focus on a number like this at all? Pollack also argues that this magic number approach is dangerous in two additional ways. A single number losses all the stuff that is important about the actual cuts. Are they phased in only after unemployment is low? Are they from reductions in spending on the automatic stabilizers keeping the economy afloat, like food stamps? Do they include measures that are good for the long-term, like a carbon tax? Like trying to figure out your health by only looking at your weight, using a single number to try and capture a large phenomenon confuses all the things that we know are important.
 
Also having a single number presented this way gives the impression that additional stimulus deployed in the next few years would add to the number. If we need $1.4 trillion in cuts to stabilize the debt over 10 years but want to do an additional $500 billion dollar stimulus in the next two, we don't need $1.9 trillion all of a sudden. Stabilization still takes place, just at a higher level.
 
Jared Bernstein of CBPP responds, arguing that "a) stabilizing at a lower level leaves us less exposed to higher interest payments when rates finally start to rise, and b) it will be a heavier political lift to argue for a cyclical deficits next time we hit a rough patch if we’re starting at 85% versus 73%. "
 
I would note a few things. The first is, for all the theorizing, economists are deeply conflicted about whether or not a higher versus a lower debt-to-GDP level matters. Right now, rather than just crowding out private investments, there will be a strong pull to crowd in actual economic activity. Or, to put it another way, when there’s a fiscal multiplier, increases in debt can help offset themselves; we could end up with a higher debt but a lower debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
Beyond that though, it isn’t clear that the level of debt would impact interest rates or if they would make us richer or poorer, even at full employment. A larger pool of debt at full employment might just increase savings, through a mechanism economists call Ricardian equivalence, which will lower interest rates. There are many different ways of understanding how these relationships could happen. Economists are divided on this; it’s not for nothing that Glenn Hubbard, in 2011, wrote that when it comes to the relationship between government debt and interest rates, "Despite the volume of work, no universal consensus has emerged."
 
We could use more cost-benefit analysis on this matter. Assuming a worst-case scenario that we are currently at full employment, so additional deficits are crowding out private investment, how different would interest rates be if we have an 80 percent debt ratio versus a 73 percent debt ratio? Again this evidence is mixed, but Eric Engen and R. Glenn Hubbard found that a one percent increase in debt-to-GDP increases government interest rates two basis points. So we are talking about the bad case scenario having an 0.16 percent increase in government interest rates. That's not trivial, but it also isn't a doomsday scenario. And this bad case scenario is going to be avoided by prioritizing cuts that could put a serious hamper on both demand and long-term investments? Is this really an exercise worth taking?
 
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During a radio debate in 1933, the British economist John Maynard Keynes said, “You will never balance the Budget through measures which reduce the national income.” In an attempt to forget this lesson and repeat the mistakes of 1937, the United States is set to put the sequestration into motion in a few weeks. This package of quickly enacted cuts will try to balance the budget by destroying a million jobs in the next two years and taking a chunk of GDP off growth.

President Obama is likely to call for replacing this sequestration with a deficit reduction plan of $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years in his State of the Union tomorrow night. This is as the deficit is falling quickly, from 7 percent of GDP in 2012 to a projected 5.3 percent this year. Obama's target number would build off the $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction already in place through the Budget Control Act and fiscal cliff deal for a total of nearly $4 trillion.

But what if we needed significantly less than $1.5 trillion at this point? What number would be necessary, under what conditions? Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priority (CBPP) has called for $1.4 trillion. There’s been an interesting pushback against this argument from Ethan Pollack of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), who argues that CBPP’s numbers are far too high, and that the debt-to-GDP, or debt ratio, can be stabilized with less than half of that. Let's summarize this debate here.

If stabilizing the debt is the goal, everything depends on what we mean by stabilization. CBPP wants to stabilize the debt ratio with two conditions. The first is that it will be at the current rate of 73 percent, and the second is that it will occur by 2022, or within a 10-year window. Here is EPI's chart showing the current trajectory and the numbers proposed by CBPP and President Obama:

What Pollack notes is that if you relax either assumption, you can still have stabilization but at a significantly lower level of deficit reduction. If we relax the 73 percent requirement, and we target a debt-to-GDP level that is lower in 2022 than it was in 2018, we’d only need $670 billion dollars in deficit reduction, with $580 coming from policy savings (and the rest from interest). That's a lot less in brutal cuts while the economy is still weak. This would still stabilize the debt, as the debt-to-GDP ratio starts to decline. It would just stabilize it at a higher level.
 
What if we want a debt ratio of 73 percent, but we relax the time constraint? What if we worry less about an arbitrary 10-year limit and look at the long run? If we want to stabilize the debt outside the 10-year window at the current rate, we’d need a long-run deficit of 3 percent. That would only require $500 billion in cuts, of which $430 billion is policy savings. This is still long-run stabilization, which is what we'd want, rather than stabilization while the economy is still weak.
 
So we can have stabilization with significantly less upfront costs. But why focus on a number like this at all? Pollack also argues that this magic number approach is dangerous in two additional ways. A single number losses all the stuff that is important about the actual cuts. Are they phased in only after unemployment is low? Are they from reductions in spending on the automatic stabilizers keeping the economy afloat, like food stamps? Do they include measures that are good for the long-term, like a carbon tax? Like trying to figure out your health by only looking at your weight, using a single number to try and capture a large phenomenon confuses all the things that we know are important.
 
Also having a single number presented this way gives the impression that additional stimulus deployed in the next few years would add to the number. If we need $1.4 trillion in cuts to stabilize the debt over 10 years but want to do an additional $500 billion dollar stimulus in the next two, we don't need $1.9 trillion all of a sudden. Stabilization still takes place, just at a higher level.
 
Jared Bernstein of CBPP responds, arguing that "a) stabilizing at a lower level leaves us less exposed to higher interest payments when rates finally start to rise, and b) it will be a heavier political lift to argue for a cyclical deficits next time we hit a rough patch if we’re starting at 85% versus 73%. "
 
I would note a few things. The first is, for all the theorizing, economists are deeply conflicted about whether or not a higher versus a lower debt-to-GDP level matters. Right now, rather than just crowding out private investments, there will be a strong pull to crowd in actual economic activity. Or, to put it another way, when there’s a fiscal multiplier, increases in debt can help offset themselves; we could end up with a higher debt but a lower debt-to-GDP ratio.
 
Beyond that though, it isn’t clear that the level of debt would impact interest rates or if they would make us richer or poorer, even at full employment. A larger pool of debt at full employment might just increase savings, through a mechanism economists call Ricardian equivalence, which will lower interest rates. There are many different ways of understanding how these relationships could happen. Economists are divided on this; it’s not for nothing that Glenn Hubbard, in 2011, wrote that when it comes to the relationship between government debt and interest rates, "Despite the volume of work, no universal consensus has emerged."
 
We could use more cost-benefit analysis on this matter. Assuming a worst-case scenario that we are currently at full employment, so additional deficits are crowding out private investment, how different would interest rates be if we have an 80 percent debt ratio versus a 73 percent debt ratio? Again this evidence is mixed, but Eric Engen and R. Glenn Hubbard found that a one percent increase in debt-to-GDP increases government interest rates two basis points. So we are talking about the bad case scenario having an 0.16 percent increase in government interest rates. That's not trivial, but it also isn't a doomsday scenario. And this bad case scenario is going to be avoided by prioritizing cuts that could put a serious hamper on both demand and long-term investments? Is this really an exercise worth taking?
 
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The Fiscal Cliff Deal: Useless Little Battles and a Worse Government

Feb 7, 2013Bo Cutter

The year ahead will be full of petty budget battles that solve nothing and distract from the real issues.

On the one hand, the last minute December 2012 fiscal cliff deal was in no respects a policy breakthrough, but on the other hand, it didn't solve any process issues either. There will be no grand resolution, which pleases the ideologues on both sides. God forbid that we come to any workable compromises. And there is no framework. So the 2013 stage is set for a series of useless little budget/deficit/debt wars.

The year ahead will be full of petty budget battles that solve nothing and distract from the real issues.

On the one hand, the last minute December 2012 fiscal cliff deal was in no respects a policy breakthrough, but on the other hand, it didn't solve any process issues either. There will be no grand resolution, which pleases the ideologues on both sides. God forbid that we come to any workable compromises. And there is no framework. So the 2013 stage is set for a series of useless little budget/deficit/debt wars.

We face, in turn, (1) the sequestration battles starting in March (over irresponsible cuts we agreed to 15 months ago as a way of avoiding doing anything then), (2) continuing resolution battles starting in April (a series of confrontations over spending this year because Congress couldn't pass spending bills), (3) 2014 budget battles starting in May (but then we haven't actually agreed on a budget for years), and (4) the return of the debt limit debacle sometime around August. (You thought this was over because Congress has declared that the debt limit has been suspended, but it's coming back.)

These little battles will not -- either singly or together -- lead to a resolution of the deficit/debt/budget debacle. No actual problems will be solved. Everything will be kicked down the proverbial road. My bet is that each of the impending possible battles will wind up the same. There will be high drama moving toward farce, forecasts of doom, tense last-minute negotiations in which various congressional and executive leaders will try to act as though something important is happening. Each time the Republican House will back down, because if your approval rating is lower than cockroaches, you have surprisingly little political leverage.

We are seeing this whole drama playing out now in the run up to the sequester. To remind everyone, these are cuts (roughly $85 billion in 2013 divided between domestic and defense programs) Congress and the president agreed to because they were thought to be so awful that the same two parties would agree to solving the whole budget problem to keep these cuts from happening. So now they are likely to happen and we've decided we hate them.

I hated them a year ago and said so at the time, but predicted that we would in the end make the domestic cuts and finesse the defense cuts. To be clear, I believe we must, over a 10 year period, slow down the growth of public debt, and this has to mean budget cuts. But these reductions will occur at the wrong time, they are done in the wrong way, they hit the wrong part of the budget, and they do nothing whatsoever to alter the 10 year picture of debt growth that impends. They are a wholly symbolic and harmful ritual dance.

We should not make these cuts now. We should, if necessary, make smaller cuts so Congress can say it got a "down payment." Then Congress and the president should agree there will be no debt ceiling fight this year and should publicly and together commit to a process that might work.

In my dreams.

We seem intent on having these useless little battles. They will not actually lead to disasters. On the other hand, they won't make anything better. But they will take up time, consume political capital, raise the level of distrust in government, maintain a high level of economic uncertainty, lower our economy's growth rate, and impede the administration's and the Congress's focus on the real issues of our future. Both parties will look worse after all of this.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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How is Inequality Holding Back the Recovery?

Feb 4, 2013Mike Konczal

Is inequality holding back our weak recovery? Joe Stiglitz argues it is, while Paul Krugman argues it is not. John Judis summarizes the debate at The New RepublicI want to rephrase the question and focus specifically on the two most relevant policy points.

Taxes: Stiglitz argues, "[T]he weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks." 
 
Right now our federal government's tax structure is progressive, while state and local taxes are regressive. Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at cheap rates and run a large deficit without a problem, while state budgets are constrained and need to be balanced. As a result, large cuts and layoffs at the state and local level have counteracted much of the federal government's stimulus that comes from running a larger deficit. Indeed, Stiglitz's point that inequality makes it harder to fund education is a real life battle: we are currently seeing education funding by state and local governments collapsing in real-time.
 
Here's a chart on how regressive state and local taxes are from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy:

When it comes to state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays 6.4 percent, the middle 20 percent pays 9.7, while the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.9 percent. This isn't counting user fees, though a CEO with 300 times the income of a worker probably doesn't get 300 times as many drivers' licenses.
 
So, all things being equal, less inequality would mean less revenue for the federal government and more for state and local governments. Since a good plan for boosting demand would entail the federal government collecting less revenue (an extension of the payroll tax cut would have boosted demand) and state and local governments collecting more revenue and thus facing less austerity, less inequality would net provide more stimulus. I doubt it would matter that much, though it's an empirical matter on just how much it would provide.
 
Spending: The other debate has to do with the marginal propensity to consume. Evidence does find the rich are less likely to spend money on consumption than everyone else, and in a liquidity trap this matters. Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a larger theory on why it has mattered over the past decades, but I want to focus on the complicating, narrow issue of wealth inequality.
 
A graph by Amir Sufi, using Federal Reserve data, shows a collapse in the median net worth of households, and his research and others finds that this is a driver of the collapse in demand:

Meanwhile, precautionary savings are still a problem.
 
So, all things being equal, what happens if we decrease inequality in a balance-sheet recession? I see two changes running in opposite directions. You could see an increase in spending by the median household, as they have a higher propensity to spend, plus more income could relieve their balance-sheet constraints. However, if more middle-class households have more of the country's income, they may save it even more aggressively; this would amplify the Paradox of Thrift and make the recession worse in the short term. It's not clear which of these effects would dominate over the other.
 
One way to deal with this is to boost net wealth while keeping incomes consistent, via debt forgiveness or reform our legal mechanisms like bankruptcy so they can handle allocating these losses, though that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
 
Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:
  

 

Is inequality holding back our weak recovery? Joe Stiglitz argues it is, while Paul Krugman argues it is not. John Judis summarizes the debate at The New RepublicI want to rephrase the question and focus specifically on the two most relevant policy points.

Taxes: Stiglitz argues, "[T]he weakness of the middle class is holding back tax receipts, especially because those at the top are so adroit in avoiding taxes and in getting Washington to give them tax breaks." 
 
Right now our federal government's tax structure is progressive, while state and local taxes are regressive. Meanwhile, the federal government can borrow at cheap rates and run a large deficit without a problem, while state budgets are constrained and need to be balanced. As a result, large cuts and layoffs at the state and local level have counteracted much of the federal government's stimulus that comes from running a larger deficit. Indeed, Stiglitz's point that inequality makes it harder to fund education is a real life battle: we are currently seeing education funding by state and local governments collapsing in real-time.
 
Here's a chart on how regressive state and local taxes are from the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy:

When it comes to state and local taxes, the top 1 percent pays 6.4 percent, the middle 20 percent pays 9.7, while the poorest 20 percent of families pay 10.9 percent. This isn't counting user fees, though a CEO with 300 times the income of a worker probably doesn't get 300 times as many drivers' licenses.
 
So, all things being equal, less inequality would mean less revenue for the federal government and more for state and local governments. Since a good plan for boosting demand would entail the federal government collecting less revenue (an extension of the payroll tax cut would have boosted demand) and state and local governments collecting more revenue and thus facing less austerity, less inequality would net provide more stimulus. I doubt it would matter that much, though it's an empirical matter on just how much it would provide.
 
Spending: The other debate has to do with the marginal propensity to consume. Evidence does find the rich are less likely to spend money on consumption than everyone else, and in a liquidity trap this matters. Steve Waldman at Interfluidity has a larger theory on why it has mattered over the past decades, but I want to focus on the complicating, narrow issue of wealth inequality.
 
A graph by Amir Sufi, using Federal Reserve data, shows a collapse in the median net worth of households, and his research and others finds that this is a driver of the collapse in demand:

Meanwhile, precautionary savings are still a problem.
 
So, all things being equal, what happens if we decrease inequality in a balance-sheet recession? I see two changes running in opposite directions. You could see an increase in spending by the median household, as they have a higher propensity to spend, plus more income could relieve their balance-sheet constraints. However, if more middle-class households have more of the country's income, they may save it even more aggressively; this would amplify the Paradox of Thrift and make the recession worse in the short term. It's not clear which of these effects would dominate over the other.
 
One way to deal with this is to boost net wealth while keeping incomes consistent, via debt forgiveness or reform our legal mechanisms like bankruptcy so they can handle allocating these losses, though that doesn't seem to be in the cards.
 
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Morning Joe vs. the Barbell

Jan 29, 2013Mike Konczal

Paul Krugman was on Morning Joe yesterday, where he was peppered with questions about why he and other liberal economists aren't obsessed with long-term debt as a more pressing, or at least equally pressing, problem compared to mass unemployment. Joe Scarborough wrote a follow-up editorial implying that Krugman's opinion is isolated among economists without citing any actual economists. In response, Joe Weisenthal created a list of economists of varying backgrounds and political persuasions who agree with Krugman.

The segment focused on the idea that the only way to do stimulus is if we also do long-term cuts at the same time.

Some quotes to give a feel:

Joe Scarborough, 8m20s: "Medicare, Medicaid, health care costs, the defense budget, long-term drivers of a long-term debt... I say you can do two things at the same time."

Ed Rendel, 12m23s, 15m49s: "I don't think any of these things are mutually exclusive... I think we can [invest in infrastructure] while at the same time taking care of the long-term... Simpson-Bowles said we can do both. We can stretch out our debt reduction over a course of time and at the same time do some things that will spur the economy."

Joe Scarborough: "Won't that send a good message to the markets if we say, 'Hey listen, here's the deal. We are going to take care of what we have to do in the short term to get people back to work, but in the long term we are taking care of the long-term structure'?"

This is often referred to as a "barbell strategy" (from a Peter Orzag column). Do stimulus, do long-term deficit reduction, but only if you can do them together. As mentioned by the panelists, this is part of several bipartisan debt reduction strategies. Here's Domenici-Rivlin's Restoring America's Future Plan: "First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work... Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt... These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially."

It's weird that nobody on Morning Joe seems to understand the obvious problems with this strategy, so let's make a list.

1. There is no solid economic argument for this. There may be political arguments, as in that's the only way to build a coalition to get legislation through a partisan Congress, but they are just that, political. There's no decent economic argument for why if stimulus is a good idea, and long-term deficit reduction is a good idea, that you need to do both at the same time.

Scarborough's argument that "this would send a good message to the markets" implies that interest rates are a constraint, when instead they've been at ultra-low rates. It also seems to imply that additional stimulus would send the markets into a panic. It is true that if we passed a stimulus program interest rates could rise, but this would reflect the market thinking things were getting better, not worse.

2. The political argument for this is also weak, if only because it was the operative strategy over the past several years and didn't work. President Obama just tried to get some $225 billion dollars in stimulus in the fiscal cliff and looked to be willing to accept cuts in the inflation adjustments for Social Security as part of the package. Republicans turned this down. This stimulus was first proposed a year earlier in his American Jobs Act, which, as he told Congress, would be paid for by offsetting long-term budgets. This was dead on arrival.

And it is easy to see why. You can probably get some agreement on the content of a stimulus package, but to get a agreement on long-term deficit reduction, you would need the GOP to accept some new revenues or clarify what it wants on social insurance. It won't do the first outside constructed scenarios like the fiscal cliff and the latter has yet to happen.

3. As for the short term, alleviating unemployment is the most responsible budget action even though it increases the short-term deficit. Austerity is likely to give us a higher debt-to-GDP problem if it causes a double-dip recession. Our current deficit is so large because so many people are not working; more economic activity would mean more things to tax and fewer stablizers like unemployment insurance to pay for.

As Delong and Summers argue, additional fiscal stimulus in a depressed economy can largely offset its own costs. Or as John Maynard Keynes said in 1933, "It is the burden of unemployment and the decline in the national income which are upsetting the Budget. Look after the unemployment, and the Budget will look after itself."

4. As for the part of the budget that won't take care of itself, President Obama fought an ugly and costly battle to bend the cost curve of health care, in which he was accused of everything from creating death panels to looting benefits of seniors in order to pass them out to his army of Takers. Since he's already paid that price, why wouldn't he wait and see how well Medicare cost saving techniques work?

Maybe it's just me, but I find the "if you want to see full employment again, immediately dismantle some social insurance" to be like a form of ransom. Meanwhile millions of people are suffering needlessly as a result of the lack of action.

Follow or contact the Rortybomb blog:

  

Paul Krugman was on Morning Joe yesterday, where he was peppered with questions about why he and other liberal economists aren't obsessed with long-term debt as a more pressing, or at least equally pressing, problem compared to mass unemployment. Joe Scarborough wrote a follow-up editorial implying that Krugman's opinion is isolated among economists without citing any actual economists. In response, Joe Weisenthal created a list of economists of varying backgrounds and political persuasions who agree with Krugman.

The segment focused on the idea that the only way to do stimulus is if we also do long-term cuts at the same time.

Some quotes to give a feel:

Joe Scarborough, 8m20s: "Medicare, Medicaid, health care costs, the defense budget, long-term drivers of a long-term debt... I say you can do two things at the same time."

Ed Rendel, 12m23s, 15m49s: "I don't think any of these things are mutually exclusive... I think we can [invest in infrastructure] while at the same time taking care of the long-term... Simpson-Bowles said we can do both. We can stretch out our debt reduction over a course of time and at the same time do some things that will spur the economy."

Joe Scarborough: "Won't that send a good message to the markets if we say, 'Hey listen, here's the deal. We are going to take care of what we have to do in the short term to get people back to work, but in the long term we are taking care of the long-term structure'?"

This is often referred to as a "barbell strategy" (from a Peter Orzag column). Do stimulus, do long-term deficit reduction, but only if you can do them together. As mentioned by the panelists, this is part of several bipartisan debt reduction strategies. Here's Domenici-Rivlin's Restoring America's Future Plan: "First, we must recover from the deep recession that has thrown millions out of work... Second, we must take immediate steps to reduce the unsustainable debt... These two challenges must be addressed at the same time, not sequentially."

It's weird that nobody on Morning Joe seems to understand the obvious problems with this strategy, so let's make a list.

1. There is no solid economic argument for this. There may be political arguments, as in that's the only way to build a coalition to get legislation through a partisan Congress, but they are just that, political. There's no decent economic argument for why if stimulus is a good idea, and long-term deficit reduction is a good idea, that you need to do both at the same time.

Scarborough's argument that "this would send a good message to the markets" implies that interest rates are a constraint, when instead they've been at ultra-low rates. It also seems to imply that additional stimulus would send the markets into a panic. It is true that if we passed a stimulus program interest rates could rise, but this would reflect the market thinking things were getting better, not worse.

2. The political argument for this is also weak, if only because it was the operative strategy over the past several years and didn't work. President Obama just tried to get some $225 billion dollars in stimulus in the fiscal cliff and looked to be willing to accept cuts in the inflation adjustments for Social Security as part of the package. Republicans turned this down. This stimulus was first proposed a year earlier in his American Jobs Act, which, as he told Congress, would be paid for by offsetting long-term budgets. This was dead on arrival.

And it is easy to see why. You can probably get some agreement on the content of a stimulus package, but to get a agreement on long-term deficit reduction, you would need the GOP to accept some new revenues or clarify what it wants on social insurance. It won't do the first outside constructed scenarios like the fiscal cliff and the latter has yet to happen.

3. As for the short term, alleviating unemployment is the most responsible budget action even though it increases the short-term deficit. Austerity is likely to give us a higher debt-to-GDP problem if it causes a double-dip recession. Our current deficit is so large because so many people are not working; more economic activity would mean more things to tax and fewer stablizers like unemployment insurance to pay for.

As Delong and Summers argue, additional fiscal stimulus in a depressed economy can largely offset its own costs. Or as John Maynard Keynes said in 1933, "It is the burden of unemployment and the decline in the national income which are upsetting the Budget. Look after the unemployment, and the Budget will look after itself."

4. As for the part of the budget that won't take care of itself, President Obama fought an ugly and costly battle to bend the cost curve of health care, in which he was accused of everything from creating death panels to looting benefits of seniors in order to pass them out to his army of Takers. Since he's already paid that price, why wouldn't he wait and see how well Medicare cost saving techniques work?

Maybe it's just me, but I find the "if you want to see full employment again, immediately dismantle some social insurance" to be like a form of ransom. Meanwhile millions of people are suffering needlessly as a result of the lack of action.

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No, the 90 Percent Debt Threshold Hasn't Been Proven

Jan 28, 2013Mike Konczal

The deficit hawks at the Washington Post editorial board are worried. They are worried that the deficit is falling and the debt-to-GDP ratio is leveling off as a result of the numerous cuts and tax increases implemented over the past two years. Liberals know this and are starting to push back, either claiming that the deficit is coming down too quickly or arguing that the main medium-term deficit issues are taken care of and we should focus more on unemployment and other non-budget issues while implementing Obamacare reforms well. The CBPP has been leading the charge on this, noting various levels at which debt as a percent of GDP would level off in the following graphic:

The editorial focuses on the debt-to-GDP ratio leveling out too close to a 90 percent threshold. The writers also claim that there is a well-defined and well-established 90 percent threshold over which our economy will suffer. They write, "The CBPP analysis assumes steady economic growth and no war. If that’s even slightly off, debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." This 90 percent threshold was proposed by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their 2010 article "Growth in a Time of Debt" (GITD). They found that economies with public debt over 90 percent of debt-to-GDP grew more slowly than other countries.

It's always tough to figure out where consensus among economists lies. But economists don't "regard" the 90 percent mark as definitive; in fact, this study and its claim have never even been peer reviewed by an economics journal. [1]

I don't bring this up because something that's peer reviewed should automatically be accepted as definitive, or that credentials are everything, or that only Very Serious Economics matter. (That's a bad rule in general, and as an economics blogger that would be a doubly insane claim.) I bring it up only because the public should understand that the 90 percent threshold couldn't survive peer review for a very important reason: It's impossible to seperate the cause and effect here given the evidence collected. Policymakers and deficit hawks should reconsider if they're running under the assumption that this is a well-established rule.

Remember that growth that is suprisingly slow will increase the debt-to-GDP ratio relative to expectations by definition. And periods of slower growth will lead to higher debt levels. That doesn't mean that those debt loads caused the slower growth -- in these cases it would be just the opposite. Reinhart and Rogoff present no techniques, tools or theory to break this problem down and determine what is the cause and what is the effect in this debt versus GDP relationship.

As John Irons and Josh Bivens of EPI noted in their review of the GITD paper (my bold):

First, the theory that governs the relation between debt and growth suggests strongly that causality runs more firmly from slower growth to higher debt loads. Slow economic growth, and especially growth that is slower than policy makers’ expectations, will lead to higher levels of debt as revenues fall and as automatic-stabilizer spending increases... Importantly, the timing matters. Persistent slow growth will yield high debt levels, and will thus mechanically yield to contemporaneous combinations of high debt and slow growth...

In short, the statistical evidence strongly suggests that the causality runs from growth to debt, and not the reverse. Given that theory and preliminary investigation agree in this case, it seems clear that the GITD analysis—which looks only at contemporaneous levels of debt and growth—is much more likely to capture causal relationships running from slow growth to high debt. This means there is very little reason for policy makers to think that there is a high-debt threshold that acts to slow growth.

As one economist wrote me in an email, "it is likely unpublishable in a top journal due to the fact that they have not developed any techniques to tease out causality in what are suggestive but non-conclusive correlations. For this work to be the *one* thing that politicians decide to take from economics is horrible."

You can think that lower debt is better than higher debt ratios. You can be worried about interest payments, even though those are at a 30-year low and projected to go back to historical averages. But there isn't a great reason to believe that that leveling out at 80 versus 90 percent of GDP matters that much when we have mass unemployment, low interest rates, and inflation in check. Growth matters just as much as GDP for this calculation, and it's a terrible deal if we sacrifice either immediate growth or long-term investments in an attempt to bring down this debt-to-GDP ratio. There isn't good evidence that the levels matter that much if the plan works, and it is likely the plan won't work. Weakening growth is likely to balloon that deficit as well.

It's important to get a sense of where the deficit hawks will focus next because, if it is true that the deficit wars are coming to an end, all those giant deficit hawk groups are still funded through the apocalypse. Their mission will be that of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: "Type something, will you? We're paying for this stuff." How will they keep busy and justify their taxpayer-subsidized funding? We may have just gotten an important glimpse.

[1] According to their C.V.s, it's been published in the May 2010 issue of the American Economic Review, which is a special non-reviewed "papers and proceedings" issue.

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The deficit hawks at the Washington Post editorial board are worried. They are worried that the deficit is falling and the debt-to-GDP ratio is leveling off as a result of the numerous cuts and tax increases implemented over the past two years. Liberals know this and are starting to push back, either claiming that the deficit is coming down too quickly or arguing that the main medium-term deficit issues are taken care of and we should focus more on unemployment and other non-budget issues while implementing Obamacare reforms well. The CBPP has been leading the charge on this, noting various levels at which debt as a percent of GDP would level off in the following graphic:

The editorial focuses on the debt-to-GDP ratio leveling out too close to a 90 percent threshold. The writers also claim that there is a well-defined and well-established 90 percent threshold over which our economy will suffer. They write, "The CBPP analysis assumes steady economic growth and no war. If that’s even slightly off, debt-to-GDP could keep rising — and stick dangerously near the 90 percent mark that economists regard as a threat to sustainable economic growth." This 90 percent threshold was proposed by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in their 2010 article "Growth in a Time of Debt" (GITD). They found that economies with public debt over 90 percent of debt-to-GDP grew more slowly than other countries.

It's always tough to figure out where consensus among economists lies. But economists don't "regard" the 90 percent mark as definitive; in fact, this study and its claim have never even been peer reviewed by an economics journal. [1]

I don't bring this up because something that's peer reviewed should automatically be accepted as definitive, or that credentials are everything, or that only Very Serious Economics matter. (That's a bad rule in general, and as an economics blogger that would be a doubly insane claim.) I bring it up only because the public should understand that the 90 percent threshold couldn't survive peer review for a very important reason: It's impossible to seperate the cause and effect here given the evidence collected. Policymakers and deficit hawks should reconsider if they're running under the assumption that this is a well-established rule.

Remember that growth that is suprisingly slow will increase the debt-to-GDP ratio relative to expectations by definition. And periods of slower growth will lead to higher debt levels. That doesn't mean that those debt loads caused the slower growth -- in these cases it would be just the opposite. Reinhart and Rogoff present no techniques, tools or theory to break this problem down and determine what is the cause and what is the effect in this debt versus GDP relationship.

As John Irons and Josh Bivens of EPI noted in their review of the GITD paper (my bold):

First, the theory that governs the relation between debt and growth suggests strongly that causality runs more firmly from slower growth to higher debt loads. Slow economic growth, and especially growth that is slower than policy makers’ expectations, will lead to higher levels of debt as revenues fall and as automatic-stabilizer spending increases... Importantly, the timing matters. Persistent slow growth will yield high debt levels, and will thus mechanically yield to contemporaneous combinations of high debt and slow growth...

In short, the statistical evidence strongly suggests that the causality runs from growth to debt, and not the reverse. Given that theory and preliminary investigation agree in this case, it seems clear that the GITD analysis—which looks only at contemporaneous levels of debt and growth—is much more likely to capture causal relationships running from slow growth to high debt. This means there is very little reason for policy makers to think that there is a high-debt threshold that acts to slow growth.

As one economist wrote me in an email, "it is likely unpublishable in a top journal due to the fact that they have not developed any techniques to tease out causality in what are suggestive but non-conclusive correlations. For this work to be the *one* thing that politicians decide to take from economics is horrible."

You can think that lower debt is better than higher debt ratios. You can be worried about interest payments, even though those are at a 30-year low and projected to go back to historical averages. But there isn't a great reason to believe that that leveling out at 80 versus 90 percent of GDP matters that much when we have mass unemployment, low interest rates, and inflation in check. Growth matters just as much as GDP for this calculation, and it's a terrible deal if we sacrifice either immediate growth or long-term investments in an attempt to bring down this debt-to-GDP ratio. There isn't good evidence that the levels matter that much if the plan works, and it is likely the plan won't work. Weakening growth is likely to balloon that deficit as well.

It's important to get a sense of where the deficit hawks will focus next because, if it is true that the deficit wars are coming to an end, all those giant deficit hawk groups are still funded through the apocalypse. Their mission will be that of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: "Type something, will you? We're paying for this stuff." How will they keep busy and justify their taxpayer-subsidized funding? We may have just gotten an important glimpse.

[1] According to their C.V.s, it's been published in the May 2010 issue of the American Economic Review, which is a special non-reviewed "papers and proceedings" issue.

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No Pay, No Problem: Why Congress Doesn't Need Our Money

Jan 25, 2013Tim Price

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

One reason Congress is so dysfunctional is that wealthy lawmakers are insulated from everyday concerns like getting paid.

This week, as part of a compromise to ward off a debt ceiling showdown and potential default, the House approved the No Budget, No Pay Act, which would withhold lawmakers’ paychecks starting April 15 unless they pass a budget. If you haven’t been keeping up with GOP talking points, this is the latest attempt to pressure Senate Democrats into producing a budget resolution, which they haven’t done in the last four years for various inane parliamentary reasons. But whatever you think of its intent, it’s an empty gesture and one that highlights the troubling disconnect between average Americans and their elected officials.

Despite its gimmicky origins, No Budget, No Pay has a certain intuitive appeal. As centrist commentator John Avlon writes, “If you don't get the job done at work, you won't get paid.” Sure, you or I would probably just get fired, but we don’t have gerrymandering to save us. Still, why should we reward Harry Reid and his crew for shirking their responsibilities while House Republicans have been keeping their noses to the grindstone and dutifully passing Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fan fiction?

For one thing, it’s unconstitutional. Not “unconstitutional” in the wingnut sense that cutting the crusts off your sandwich is unconstitutional if there’s a photo of Barack Obama doing it, but unconstitutional in the sense that the 27th Amendment specifically prohibits Congress from mucking around with its own pay unless there’s an intervening election. To get around this little detail, the act is designed so that the members’ checks get deposited into an escrow account until a) they pass a budget or b) the term ends in 2014, at which point they get paid in full either way. In other words, it’s less of a threat to their livelihood and more of an experiment in delayed gratification.

But a more significant problem is that most legislators probably couldn’t care less if their pay was withheld indefinitely. As of 2011, the average estimated wealth of members of Congress was $6.5 million in the House and $13.9 million in the Senate. And unlike many of their constituents, they haven’t exactly been struggling through lean times recently. While average American households saw their median net worth drop 39 percent from 2007 to 2010, lawmakers’ rose 5 percent during the same period. That’s not to say that every member of Congress is set for life; some are deep in debt like true red-blooded Americans. But threats to withhold pay are ineffective when most of our representatives have enough money in their rainy day funds to last them through monsoon season. And if worst comes to worst, they can always exit through the revolving door and join a few corporate boards to replenish their bank accounts.

This points to a larger problem with our political system, which is just how far removed our policymakers are from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans. In a 2005 study, Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels found that:

[S]enators appear to be considerably more responsive to the opinions of affluent constituents than to the opinions of middle-class constituents, while the opinions of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution have no apparent statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes.

Read that again: if you’re a low-income voter, you and your policy preferences might as well not exist as far as your senators are concerned. While Bartels doesn’t provide a definitive explanation for these findings, he notes that “the fact that senators are themselves affluent, and in many cases extremely wealthy, hardly seems irrelevant.” Being rich frames the way our elected officials see the world, shapes their social circles, and determines their legislative priorities. In that sense, wealth is the incubator that hatches Washington’s deficit hawks.

Of course, wealth alone doesn’t determine a person’s politics. FDR was no pauper, but he fought for the common good and was labeled a class traitor for his efforts. But noblesse oblige isn’t what it used to be, and today’s well-heeled lawmakers seem more interested in scoring political points than addressing mass unemployment and soaring inequality. No Budget, No Pay won’t do anything to change that, and any consensus budget that it did produce would undoubtedly be laden with more unnecessary cuts to domestic spending and the social safety net. It’s a fair point that lawmakers shouldn’t get paid for a job they’re not doing, but they’re so insulated from reality that no amount of negative reinforcement short of voting them out of office is likely to have a significant impact. And until that happens, we don’t need more gimmicks to make them fall in line and pass an austerity budget. What we could use is a lot more traitors.

Tim Price is Deputy Editor of Next New Deal. Follow him on Twitter @txprice.

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Obama's Other Message: Times Change and Government Changes With Them

Jan 23, 2013Jeff Madrick

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

The president didn't just make a case for big government; he argued that the government must adapt to meet its citizens' needs.

Almost hidden in President Obama’s second inaugural address was a key idea that received little if any attention. The focus has been on the president's eloquent defense of collective government, and who couldn't be gratified by that? Time and again, he used the world “together” to describe the nation’s purpose. Government is about working together, and Obama very nicely made the case for it in the face of 40 years of pronouncements by those who disparage government and want to cut it down, if not out. Democrats, not just Republicans, have been leaders in this quest.

But for me, what was most interesting about Obama’s speech was the emphasis on how we must change with the times. I was interested because I wrote a book about this. I take no credit for Obama’s point, because my book was titled The Case for Big GovernmentI doubt he would be caught even in the privacy of his own bedroom reading a book with that title.

Seeing the title, many presumed I was writing about Keynesian policy. In fact, my argument was that the size of government is not the issue, the need for government is. I cited the work of economists who show that size and high taxes have not automatically deterred growth. But when I published this before the crash, Republicans in particular, but also some Democrats, kept talking about the original intentions of the Founders and were urging us not to go beyond the early purposes of government. That is where I focused my attention: the needs of government change as society, science, social thought,  technology, and expectations advance.

To say government must be small is nonsense. Government must be the size necessary to make a society and economy work, and that is not fixed -- nor could it possibly have been known by farmers in the late 1700s.

Here is what Obama said about change on Monday:

[W]e have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. For the American people can no more meet the demands of today's world by acting alone than American soldiers could have met the forces of fascism or communism with muskets and militias.

Let me reemphasize that this has been said before but not often enough. Surely it is not part of the media discourse and it is not part of the thinking of those budget writers in Washington who claim the federal government should be a fixed proportion of GDP. I refer of course to the Bowles-Simpson budget balancing plan that so many think is the height of good sense. They’d like to limit federal spending to 21 percent of GDP -- no matter that our society ages, that health care is more costly, that we need to educate preschool children and better educate those in higher grades as the world gets more competitive, that our poverty rate is still high, that our ability to create jobs is under severe challenge, and so on.  

There are no fixed rules for what government should do because we can’t anticipate the future. The colonial writers of America’s Constitution did not know we’d need high schools or highways, electricity or polio vaccines, MRI machines or antibiotics, fertilizers or pollution restraints, gasoline or wind power, or computer chips. They didn’t even know we’d need railroads.

Our view of human rights also changes. Slavery is now abhorrent to almost all, women are equal, those with birth defects require help, and very young children, we have learned, benefit greatly from educationally nourishing environments.

Most of this requires government, and President Obama recognizes this. His agenda, what we must now do “together,” includes climate change, equal rights for women and gays, gun control, and a sensible international policy for the times. He goes on, “So we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work hard or learn more, reach higher. But while the means will change, our purpose endures.”

The means will indeed change, and the nation would do well to accept that truth, or it will not rise to the challenges of this new century. I originally titled my book The Purpose of Government. Maybe that would have been better. But the point remains the same. Shed ideology about government and fixed ideas and turn our attention to what must be done. Yes, my guess is it would mean bigger government. But so what?

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Jeff Madrick is the Director of the Roosevelt Institute’s Rediscovering Government initiative and author of Age of Greed.

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The Most Important Graph on the Deficit

Jan 22, 2013Mike Konczal

Another friendly reminder, especially as you are deluged by pundit commentary about the budget, debt, and deficit, that there's one graphic to keep in mind about the current budget situation. From CBO:

As you can see, in 2009 our country goes into a deep recession. As a response, automatic stabilizers kick in, increasing spending through things like unemployment insurance and food stamps. Meanwhile receipts fall, as there is less economic activity and jobs that generate tax revenue, and taxes are cut further as a stimulus measure. This is not only natural, but to push back against it would have made the economy worse. That, in turn, would probably have blown out the deficit more.

The deficit is just the difference between the two lines. As the economy slowly recovers, spending decreases and tax revenues increases. We already see this happening in the CBO graphic. From the Budget Control Act there will be less spending, and from the fiscal cliff there will be more revenue. If anything, we should be worried that gap is closing too quickly, suffocating the recovery as it starts to gain strength. But the gap is still decreasing. As many people noted, the gap is closing at record-high rates.
 
There are long-term challenges driven by health care spending. Our course of action is to see if the cost control mechanisms in Obamacare work, and go from there if they don't, which I think is the right course. Certainly, after all the political pain of "cutting Medicare" and passing Obamacare, they'd be insane not to see how it works. And it is possible it is already working, with Medicare spending starting to drop.
 

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Another friendly reminder, especially as you are deluged by pundit commentary about the budget, debt, and deficit, that there's one graphic to keep in mind about the current budget situation. From CBO:

As you can see, in 2009 our country goes into a deep recession. As a response, automatic stabilizers kick in, increasing spending through things like unemployment insurance and food stamps. Meanwhile receipts fall, as there is less economic activity and jobs that generate tax revenue, and taxes are cut further as a stimulus measure. This is not only natural, but to push back against it would have made the economy worse. That, in turn, would probably have blown out the deficit more.

The deficit is just the difference between the two lines. As the economy slowly recovers, spending decreases and tax revenues increases. We already see this happening in the CBO graphic. From the Budget Control Act there will be less spending, and from the fiscal cliff there will be more revenue. If anything, we should be worried that gap is closing too quickly, suffocating the recovery as it starts to gain strength. But the gap is still decreasing. As many people noted, the gap is closing at record-high rates.
 
There are long-term challenges driven by health care spending. Our course of action is to see if the cost control mechanisms in Obamacare work, and go from there if they don't, which I think is the right course. Certainly, after all the political pain of "cutting Medicare" and passing Obamacare, they'd be insane not to see how it works. And it is possible it is already working, with Medicare spending starting to drop.
 

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We Could Use More Public Servants Like Jack Lew

Jan 16, 2013Bo Cutter

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

Despite criticism from the left, Jack Lew has a commitment to public service and a deep understanding of public finance.

I've already been fairly widely quoted in support of Jack Lew's nomination as Treasury Secretary. And for full disclosure, I supported his appointment as head of OMB and Chief of Staff of the White House, and he's been a longtime friend.

I don't much care what the hard right thinks about Jack Lew, but it is irritating to see the left instantly take up again its incessant twin rituals of circular firing squads and endogenous cannibalism -- dining on one's allies. Thus, Jack Lew is a dangerous budget hawk, responsible for Clinton administration financial regulatory mistakes, a "gofer" rather than an idea man, and nowhere near as good as the people on some other list someone can dredge up.

So just to restate the points, Jack Lew has spent essentially his entire career in public life -- on the Hill, in the executive branch, and with universities --  though he did spend about 18 months with Citigroup, which I suspect he'll never live down. He has succeeded in every role he has taken on. He is not spectacular -- from my fairly close observations, as they used to say in my high school, he brings his lunch and does an all-day job. He believes deeply in the value of the public sector, and as deeply in the importance of a high-quality public sector, in the importance of getting it right. 

He hasn't spent a lifetime in the financial private sector -- I'm personally delighted President Obama did not go that way -- but there is no one who knows and understands the complexities of our public finance better than Jack Lew. People always dismiss that as a green eye shade, low order kind of quality. Understanding budgets and public finance is for people who wear breast pocket pen protectors, not for the higher order idea men and women.  

But this is a very good nomination, and the odds are high that Jack Lew will be a very good Treasury Secretary. Much more importantly, Jack Lew is the kind of person we all would like to see in public life. 

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic Presidents.

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Prioritization, Credit Risks and the Potential for Default

Jan 15, 2013Mike Konczal

Does going with "prioritization" if we going through the debt ceiling remove the risk of a debt default, defined in this post as a missed payment on the interest or principal of government debt? Suzy Khimm reports on the extensive talk on the right about how the government can't debt default if it decides to prioritize interest payments by paying them first. There's a lot of pushback on this line of reasoning (see Ezra Klein, Brian Beutler).

The bigger danger is what happens when the government has to balance its budget in a single day. But it is worth shutting down this specific line of reasoning. Sorry conservatives: though it doesn't guarantee a default, going with this plan significantly increases the probability of default, which is what markets will be looking for.

Fitch, the ratings agency, rightly calls BS on this logic:

With no legal authorisation for net debt issuance, the Treasury would be forced to immediately eliminate the deficit - a fiscal contraction twice as great as the recently avoided 'fiscal cliff' - by delaying payments on commitments as they fall due. It is not assured that the Treasury would or legally could prioritise debt service over its myriad of other obligations, including social security payments, tax rebates and payments to contractors and employees. Arrears on such obligations would not constitute a default event from a sovereign rating perspective but very likely prompt a downgrade even as debt obligations continued to be met.

Even if we successfully prioritize we'd be a higher risk for a default, prompting a downgrade. Trying this "prioritization" plan is not risk-free, but instead introduces substantial credit risk into government debt. I want to justify Fitch's assessment by looking at what would happen.
 
As a former credit risk financial engineer who's been around a default probability transition matrix in his day, I see 5 major credit risks introduced by prioritization, which means it doesn't eliminate the risk of a debt default but in fact increases it. Let's get them in a chart:

Let's go through them.
 
1. Will It Work? The first, and most obvious, problem is that it isn't clear that they'll be able to do this successfully after the debt ceiling is breached. It hasn't been done before. As Brad Plumer notes, Fedwire, the program that handles interest payments, is seperate from the computers that handle other payments. Maybe this means it can work better; maybe it means that it won't be able to sync cash balances. As far as I can tell, nobody knows how this will work in an environment of extreme shutdown. If there are computer glitches, if the IT crowd can't get it all working in time, there's a chance of missing a payment and defaulting.
 
2. Will There Be Enough Revenue? According to the BPC, February 15th has a $30 billion dollar interest payments with only $9 billion dollars coming in the door. Will we be able to make that payment? In general, we'll know the interest payments well in advance. However the revenues coming in will be uncertain, and, especially if we are making other payments, it may be difficult to match them up. Even a small mismatch could mean a default.
 
3. Legal and Political Blowback. The civil unrest of paying foreign creditors while Social Security, military and domestic spending goes unpaid will be massive. One can easily see discontent in the streets over such a plan. If we are worried about future payments, this kind of rage generates future credit risks, and could cause the government to switch to a non-prioritization regime.
 
Meanwhile, there will be extensive lawsuits, both over the lack of payments and President Obama's legal authority to prioritize payments. No matter what people are saying, the President's authority to legally do this is uncertain. Will the courts force him to pay claims in a different manner? All of this leads to huge uncertainty over the payments themselves, which amplify the chance of missing a payment.
 
4. Rolling Over Debt. There's $500 billion dollars worth of debt that will need to be rolled over during the first month after we go through the debt ceiling. If, for some reason, any of it can't be rolled over, and there isn't a sufficient cash buffer built up, that would be a default. This is unlikely, though how unlikely it is is depends on numbers 1-3 and the level of economic chaos going through the debt ceiling generates. Especially if we are past the debt ceiling for a substantial period of time, rolling over our debt won't be a trivial operation. Though it is unlikely, if it happens it is an automatic default.
 
5. Repeat Again Next Time. If Republicans are successful at pulling this off, they will do it again the next time the debt ceiling comes up. This will mean the risk of the first four factors identified are intensified.
 
If anyone tells you that the credit risks from number 1-4 are zero, they are lying to you. Each of these has a very small chance of causing a debt default. Added together, they have a non-negliable chance of debt default such that the financial markets, and citizens themselves, should take note.
 
Even if you think the chance of default in going through the debt ceiling is only about 2 percent, a 2 percent expected probability of default over the course of one year is what junk bonds have. This may be surprising for some of you, but even very small probabilities of default are big problems for firms. If there's a 0.87% chance, for instance, of default over the course of one year, that's non-investment grade debt.
 
The government has no possibility of default except for this debt ceiling; hence our normal high rating. However the debt ceiling is where many on the right want to extract maximum concessions, even though it is the one place where you could see a chance of default. This, regardless of what they'll tell you, has consequences.
 

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Does going with "prioritization" if we going through the debt ceiling remove the risk of a debt default, defined in this post as a missed payment on the interest or principal of government debt? Suzy Khimm reports on the extensive talk on the right about how the government can't debt default if it decides to prioritize interest payments by paying them first. There's a lot of pushback on this line of reasoning (see Ezra Klein, Brian Beutler).

The bigger danger is what happens when the government has to balance its budget in a single day. But it is worth shutting down this specific line of reasoning. Sorry conservatives: though it doesn't guarantee a default, going with this plan significantly increases the probability of default, which is what markets will be looking for.

Fitch, the ratings agency, rightly calls BS on this logic:

With no legal authorisation for net debt issuance, the Treasury would be forced to immediately eliminate the deficit - a fiscal contraction twice as great as the recently avoided 'fiscal cliff' - by delaying payments on commitments as they fall due. It is not assured that the Treasury would or legally could prioritise debt service over its myriad of other obligations, including social security payments, tax rebates and payments to contractors and employees. Arrears on such obligations would not constitute a default event from a sovereign rating perspective but very likely prompt a downgrade even as debt obligations continued to be met.

Even if we successfully prioritize we'd be a higher risk for a default, prompting a downgrade. Trying this "prioritization" plan is not risk-free, but instead introduces substantial credit risk into government debt. I want to justify Fitch's assessment by looking at what would happen.
 
As a former credit risk financial engineer who's been around a default probability transition matrix in his day, I see 5 major credit risks introduced by prioritization, which means it doesn't eliminate the risk of a debt default but in fact increases it. Let's get them in a chart:

Let's go through them.
 
1. Will It Work? The first, and most obvious, problem is that it isn't clear that they'll be able to do this successfully after the debt ceiling is breached. It hasn't been done before. As Brad Plumer notes, Fedwire, the program that handles interest payments, is seperate from the computers that handle other payments. Maybe this means it can work better; maybe it means that it won't be able to sync cash balances. As far as I can tell, nobody knows how this will work in an environment of extreme shutdown. If there are computer glitches, if the IT crowd can't get it all working in time, there's a chance of missing a payment and defaulting.
 
2. Will There Be Enough Revenue? According to the BPC, February 15th has a $30 billion dollar interest payments with only $9 billion dollars coming in the door. Will we be able to make that payment? In general, we'll know the interest payments well in advance. However the revenues coming in will be uncertain, and, especially if we are making other payments, it may be difficult to match them up. Even a small mismatch could mean a default.
 
3. Legal and Political Blowback. The civil unrest of paying foreign creditors while Social Security, military and domestic spending goes unpaid will be massive. One can easily see discontent in the streets over such a plan. If we are worried about future payments, this kind of rage generates future credit risks, and could cause the government to switch to a non-prioritization regime.
 
Meanwhile, there will be extensive lawsuits, both over the lack of payments and President Obama's legal authority to prioritize payments. No matter what people are saying, the President's authority to legally do this is uncertain. Will the courts force him to pay claims in a different manner? All of this leads to huge uncertainty over the payments themselves, which amplify the chance of missing a payment.
 
4. Rolling Over Debt. There's $500 billion dollars worth of debt that will need to be rolled over during the first month after we go through the debt ceiling. If, for some reason, any of it can't be rolled over, and there isn't a sufficient cash buffer built up, that would be a default. This is unlikely, though how unlikely it is is depends on numbers 1-3 and the level of economic chaos going through the debt ceiling generates. Especially if we are past the debt ceiling for a substantial period of time, rolling over our debt won't be a trivial operation. Though it is unlikely, if it happens it is an automatic default.
 
5. Repeat Again Next Time. If Republicans are successful at pulling this off, they will do it again the next time the debt ceiling comes up. This will mean the risk of the first four factors identified are intensified.
 
If anyone tells you that the credit risks from number 1-4 are zero, they are lying to you. Each of these has a very small chance of causing a debt default. Added together, they have a non-negliable chance of debt default such that the financial markets, and citizens themselves, should take note.
 
Even if you think the chance of default in going through the debt ceiling is only about 2 percent, a 2 percent expected probability of default over the course of one year is what junk bonds have. This may be surprising for some of you, but even very small probabilities of default are big problems for firms. If there's a 0.87% chance, for instance, of default over the course of one year, that's non-investment grade debt.
 
The government has no possibility of default except for this debt ceiling; hence our normal high rating. However the debt ceiling is where many on the right want to extract maximum concessions, even though it is the one place where you could see a chance of default. This, regardless of what they'll tell you, has consequences.
 

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