To hear the media tell it, you’d think most Americans agree that this country must drastically reform its Social Security program. As Campaign Desk has pointed out, Social Security and the federal deficit have become Topic A in Washington, but so far the mainstream media haven’t had much of substance to say about it. Instead, they are taking their reportorial cues from the deficit hawks, while other voices have been shut out. This is the first in a series of occasional posts that will put the nation’s oldest and most successful social program into better perspective. I sat down for a conversation with Yale professor emeritus and social insurance expert Ted Marmor, who has written The Politics of Medicare and America’s Misunderstood Welfare State. A couple weeks ago, The Philadelphia Inquirer published his op-ed about what some deficit hawks are really after.
Trudy Lieberman: What is the federal deficit?
Ted Marmor: For any fiscal year, it’s the difference between government revenues and government expenditures when the latter is larger. We’ve had such a gap for most of the post Second World War period, and most economists believe that a deficit of one to three percent of GDP is perfectly okay, and compatible with price stability.
TL: What’s the difference between the deficit and the federal debt?
TM: The debt is the cumulative gap between revenue and expenditures at any one time. The cumulative debt is the aggregate of annual budget deficits; the projected federal debt is the amount estimated over some future period.
TL: What proportion of GDP does the deficit now consume?
TM: Present estimates are about eleven percent.
TL: Is this bad?
TM: At the moment, not a huge problem. The expected deficits can become a serious problem if left unaddressed over the next few years. The question is how long increased deficits can be tolerated to keep stimulating the economy. In short, we have an economy with high unemployment, which means wasted human capacity, lower tax revenues from our recession, and only modest economic growth. To stimulate the economy’s growth and to lower unemployment is the most pressing problem facing the country. That is the priority. But we have to anticipate lowering the deficit as a proportion of GDP when the economy is stronger.
TL: So what’s the problem right now?
TM: The Bush tax cuts, funding two seemingly endless, lingering wars, and the failure to increase taxes to pay for those wars have left the U.S. government with a current deficit that is a substantial but not intolerable portion of GDP. The continued unwillingness to project increased taxes in the future to reduce the anticipated deficits in, say, 2012, means projections of future deficits are growing sharply. At some point, such large deficits, if left unchecked, will balloon.
TL: If that happens, what are the consequences?
TM: The government can print money, which is inflationary, and the costs of borrowing to finance U.S. government bonds would increase if investors here and elsewhere were unwilling to buy them. At the moment, we do not face those circumstances because holders of U.S. government bonds are willing to accept low interest rates in exchange for what they perceive as the U.S. government’s future capacity to fund those bonds.
TL: Is this happening now?
TM: No. To repeat. Investors here and elsewhere are perfectly willing to hold U.S. bonds because the interest rates, while low, do not put off investors who are more interested in the security of the U.S. government future payments.
TL: Is this likely to happen soon?
TM: No, it is not. The present policy of stimulating the economy is perfectly sensible macroeconomic policy. The fact U.S. interest rates are quite low suggests that there are enough bond buyers who are not frightened by the alarmist deficit hawks.
TL: Then what’s all this fuss about?
TM: We are in the midst of an ideological battle between Keynesian ideas about the importance of fiscal stimulus during recessionary times and the contrary notions of conservative thinkers committed to reducing government expenditures as a means of calming the bond markets. The latter view prevailed in the mid-1930s and made continued economic recovery difficult, helping to produce a second recession then. There’s a debate now between the stimulus celebrators and deficit hawks. It’s a battle that’s been going on for decades. Some people have never liked Social Security or social insurance in general, and see Social Security pensions in particular as wasteful ways of helping the poor among the elderly and disabled.
TL: Why all of a sudden has the deficit emerged as a major problem?