Monday, March 02, 2009

Krugman: The Deficit Reduction Plan Can Work

In Saturday's New York Times, Nobel Laureate Princeton Economics Professor Paul Krugman sounds an optimistic tone about Obama's proposed new budget while still sounding a cautionary note about long-term economic challenges. It's worth a read.

Can he actually reduce the red ink from $1.75 trillion this year to less than a third as much in 2013? Yes, he can.

Right now the deficit is huge thanks to temporary factors (at least we hope they’re temporary): a severe economic slump is depressing revenues and large sums have to be allocated both to fiscal stimulus and to financial rescues.

But if and when the crisis passes, the budget picture should improve dramatically. Bear in mind that from 2005 to 2007, that is, in the three years before the crisis, the federal deficit averaged only $243 billion a year. Now, during those years, revenues were inflated, to some degree, by the housing bubble. But it’s also true that we were spending more than $100 billion a year in Iraq.

So if Mr. Obama gets us out of Iraq (without bogging us down in an equally expensive Afghan quagmire) and manages to engineer a solid economic recovery — two big ifs, to be sure — getting the deficit down to around $500 billion by 2013 shouldn’t be at all difficult.

Note all the big "ifs" however. They include a) a successful stimulus policy, which is still a working policy, and b) an ability to extremely reduce defense spending by achieving successful plans in both Iraq and Afghanistan (the new monster on our backs). Krugman also points to successful reform of spiraling health care costs for individuals and over-billing of Medicare to achieve substantial budget savings. These are big "ifs" indeed.
But won’t the deficit be swollen by interest on the debt run-up over the next few years? Not as much as you might think. Interest rates on long-term government debt are less than 4 percent, so even a trillion dollars of additional debt adds less than $40 billion a year to future deficits. And those interest costs are fully reflected in the budget documents.

This is somewhat more optimistic than yesterday's post here about the risks of overextending the national debt as a) tax revenues decline with contracting production in the economy, and b) federal debt-spending is required to unfreeze credit markets and replace lost demand (to preserve jobs basically). This is a double whammy, but Professor Krugman says these dynamics could feasibly be limited to the short term, an assumption on which all policy planning seems to depend right now.

The overall outlook is best summed in Krugman's closing lines.
So we have good priorities and plausible projections. What’s not to like about this budget? Basically, the long run outlook remains worrying.