Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Which Budget Deficit to Target?

A comment on a recent post asks:

Do you think we should use the on-budget deficit to measure our nation's short-term fiscal health? I thought most people looked at the unified deficit, measuring how much the US government has to borrow from the markets.

Calculated Risk's graph seems to show the increase in "national debt", rather than in "debt held by the public." But the "national debt" includes accruals to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, which are merely intergovernmental accounting transfers. Do you subscribe to this as an appropriate metric?

I'm being deliberate in endorsing the on-budget deficit for the "must average to zero" standard and national debt (as opposed to that held by the public) for the "no Debt/GDP trend" standard. The key adjustment to the off-budget deficit is demographic, not cyclical. We are in a period when Social Security surpluses are being run in the anticipation of deficits as the Baby Boom retires. Suppose, counterfactually, that the present value of those off-budget surpluses and deficits is zero.

If we are targeting the unified deficit, then the current off-budget surpluses enable larger on-budget deficits in the near term. That wouldn't be too problematic if I thought that the looming off-budget deficits would cause the government to run comparably smaller on-budget deficits in those years. (An analogous argument holds if we use debt held by the public rather than national debt when assessing the trend in Debt/GDP.)

I don't think that will happen. We cannot get the on-budget account out of deficit, much less into surplus. The government is not releasing (or even making) budgets with a long enough time horizon to capture the demographic impact on the General Fund. Government officials are not targeting the unified deficit because they deliberately intend to have that future path of on-budget surpluses. They are targeting it because it postpones tough fiscal decisions of cutting spending or raising taxes to someone else's watch. That postponement needs to stop.

If we continue to amble along on our current path, then I expect that in 10 - 15 years, politicians will opportunistically switch to targeting the on-budget deficit when the off-budget account turns from surplus to deficit. And given that expectation, I want them targeting the on-budget account today, as a means of imposing some fiscal discipline.


PGL said...

Holding the politicians to a consistent metric sounds like a terrific idea. Hmmm - insisting the politicians tell the truth. If I had my way, it'd be a Constituional Amendment, but then how to enforce it?

TStockmann said...

There was a third accounting method that began to surface in the argument for private accounts within Social Security. Some proponents of the program wanted to include the resulting reduction of future obligations in the debate on present-budget implications, but since those obligations are not captured in either unified or general budget figures, they really couldn't have done that without accruing in some fashion the total obligations, which would render insignificant (in a rhetorical sense) the future savings.

FrankieMouse said...

Thank you for responding to my comment!

Problem: The "on-budget" deficit excludes Social Security, but includes Medicare and Medicaid. So your measure would apply to the demographic pressures in the two health entitlements , but not to Social Security. Do you want to treat them differently?

The "on-budget" deficit target is not just a higher fiscal bar than the unified deficit target. It is a qualitatively different target, and it is defined by past political decisions that treat Social Security differently from everything else, including Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, it is a politically-defined measure, not an economic one. If you want to distinguish between short-term cyclical fiscal policy and longer-term demographically driven fiscal policy, then the on-budget deficit may not be the metric you want.

And while you seem to be advocating on-budget balance as a path toward greater deficit reduction, the traditional advocates for using an on-budget measure have been those most vociferously opposed to Social Security reform (and, consequently, those most opposed to long-term deficit reduction). They have tended to argue that, since Social Security "is in surplus" for another decade, nothing needs to be done to reform it for a while. I fear that, by choosing on-budget balance, you might facilitate those who want to delay addressing the long-term entitlement spending challenges.

Andrew Samwick said...

Yes, I am aware of the strange bedfellows involved with targeting the on-budget deficit.

I would like to see the accounting for all entitlement programs in which eligibility is determined primarily by rules rather than annual discretion taken out of the on-budget account. That includes all parts of Medicare plus Social Security. (I'm still thinking about Medicaid, given the state involvement.) I would further like the eligibility, contribution, and benefit rules for those programs to be in long-term balance.

Your questions are of the form, "If you cannot get all of it, what will you take?" Those are inherently political questions, so I don't think that favoring the on-budget versus unified target is necessarily more political than any other choice.

Gem Hudson said...

The office of equal opportunity was to Lydon Johnson administration health, education and welfare and his great society was to make up his own policy about his war on poverty. Now this getting all along together is owing them more than a good living. There is more of a problem that what their social justice could solve.

Ames Tiedeman said...

We must reduce spending and pay off the entire National Debt.