The Fiscal Cliff Isn't the Problem

The U.S. has to get spending under control. It also needs to invest for the future. Here’s how to do both
Illustration by Ana Benaroya

Early in Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods, the story of his ill-starred Appalachian Trail expedition, the author’s out-of-shape and impulsive hiking companion, Katz, decides his backpack is too heavy. So he starts throwing out the food they’d packed for the trip: rice, pepperoni, cheese, peanuts, Spam—he even discards coffee filters, which weigh next to nothing.

Panic about the fiscal cliff is threatening to lead Congress into the same short-term thinking. Investments in education, scientific research, and infrastructure—which account for a tiny portion of federal spending but make the economy more productive in the long run—are at risk. Restraining them by spending cap or sequester would be as dumb as discarding coffee filters to lighten one’s backpack. Yet if Democrats and Republicans don’t agree on a budget compromise by the end of the year, that’s what could happen.

A new Bloomberg Government analysis makes clear just how much pressure Washington is under. Instead of needing $4 trillion in deficit cuts over 10 years to stabilize the ratio of debt to gross domestic product ratio, negotiators need $5.9 trillion in cuts, according to Bloomberg Government’s calculations. In a Dec. 4 interview with Bloomberg Television, President Obama said he’ll fight to protect investments in things like education. He’s right. House Speaker John Boehner says the U.S. needs to grapple with big projected deficits in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. He’s right, too. But their two rights have made a wrong: stalemate.

Illustration by Ana Benaroya

The solution is to figure out what problems need solving on which time scale. The most urgent priority is keeping the roughly $600 billion hit to GDP from kicking in. Edward Kleinbard, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, who was chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation from 2007 to 2009, proposes turning the cliff into a ramp. He would suspend the automatic spending cuts and allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in three years instead of overnight. Congress would commit to devote all of the savings from future spending cuts to lowering tax rates, but starting with the lowest brackets, not the highest. Says Kleinbard: “None of this is impossible.”

After that comes a bigger challenge: getting the economy to grow faster and foster innovation to make burdens on future generations as light as possible. Supporting the aged and infirm will be far easier if median household income rises to, say, $75,000 adjusted for inflation, rather than remaining stuck at just over $50,000. And Medicare and Medicaid expenses will be less daunting if medicine can find cures for killers such as diabetes and dementia.

That’s why it’s foolish to slash public programs indiscriminately to get out of the fiscal hole. It’s up to government to fund growth-enhancing investments that the private sector does too little of. James Heckman, a Nobel prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, has shown that the return on a dollar invested in human capital is highest from birth to age five, lower during the school years, and lowest for adult job training. Yet the budget for Head Start, which helps children from low-income families aged five and younger to get ready for school, is paltry relative to the benefits bestowed on older Americans.

Physical capital is underfunded as well. In 2009 the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a grade of D for infrastructure. It’s doubtful that things are much better now; only about $100 billion of the Obama administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus program went toward roads, bridges, and other needs. Infrastructure investment would make the U.S. more competitive in the long run while creating jobs in the short run, and since the U.S. can borrow for next to nothing, the financing would be cheap. But Boehner is opposing Obama’s debt proposal—which includes $50 billion in infrastructure spending—because it doesn’t cut spending enough. That’s unfortunate.

Where could the U.S. cut that wouldn’t damage its growth potential? The obvious targets are defense and entitlements, which together account for nearly three-quarters of federal spending outside of interest payments. The U.S. spends more on its military than the next 13 countries combined; that would suggest potential for some nips and tucks. Social Security’s imbalance could be fixed by raising the ceiling for wages subject to the payroll tax. The knottier problems are Medicare and Medicaid, whose costs have been driven up by extraordinarily inefficient health-care spending. The U.S. spends 53 percent more on health care per capita than No. 2 Norway while getting worse results. (Norwegians’ life expectancy at birth is a year and a half longer.)

Making benefits less generous is the no-brainer way to close the gap. The forward-thinking way is to conquer diseases that sap America’s human and economic potential, as Jonas Salk’s vaccine did for polio in the 1950s. Medicare and Medicaid alone spend $140 billion a year on dementia care, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates, yet the U.S. spends only about half a billion dollars a year researching cures. George Vradenburg, chairman of USAgainstAlzheimer’s, argues that the disease could be mostly eliminated by 2020 with Manhattan Project-size funding; cuts to research could make the problem worse. “This disease could very well become the financial and social sinkhole of the 21st century,” says gerontologist Ken Dychtwald, chief executive officer of the consulting firm Age Wave.

Taxes, too, need to be reformed to amplify growth. Loopholes are a good place to start. The home mortgage interest deduction could be phased out over a long period, since all it does is encourage people to buy bigger houses and take on more debt. Savings incentives in the tax code mostly benefit the rich without actually increasing the rate of savings. But zeroing out all tax breaks would be a mistake. Some, like the one for research and development, enhance growth.

There is, of course, a point at which high tax rates slow the economy. Conservatives argue for holding down rates on capital gains and dividends while preserving all of the Bush high-end cuts on ordinary income. But the U.S. appears to be well shy of the tipping point at which hiking taxes would be counterproductive. The economy grew faster in the 1950s when the highest rate was 91 percent.

What’s limiting business investment and hiring today isn’t the prospect of slightly higher tax rates but the fear that there won’t be enough customers. Weak, uncertain demand is the lasting legacy of the Great Recession and the slow rebound since. In manufacturing, mining, and utilities, depreciation has outpaced fresh investment since the start of the recession in December 2007, leaving the sector with a decline in productive capacity, according to Federal Reserve data. Recessions have lasting consequences: Eroding capacity, they limit the economy’s ability to grow—and generate tax revenue—in the future.

Refocusing the budget debate on the future is something that both conservatives and liberals should support. Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a fiscally conservative Democrat, worries that Congress isn’t taking the long-term entitlements crisis seriously. He says the government should copy the private sector by adopting accrual accounting instead of just measuring each year’s cash in and cash out. Accrual accounting would acknowledge how much the country owes future retirees. It would also differentiate investments in roads, bridges, and Head Start from day-to-day spending on paper clips and electricity. “The government is the last major entity left in America that doesn’t use accrual accounting,” says Cooper. “The business mantra is, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Without that kind of discipline, he says, “Congress has very poor eyesight and won’t necessarily cut in the right place.”

Or, to put it in terms Katz might understand: When you still have 2,000 miles to hike, don’t throw away all of your pepperoni.

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