Category Archives: Federal

Seven Years and Counting…

Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund (HI) will be depleted in seven years — three years sooner than forecast previously, according to the 2018 Annual Report of the Medicare Boards of Trustees. By 2026, Medicare Part A, which covers hospital payments, will be running a $52 billion annual deficit, a gap that will increase rapidly in successive years.

The forecast is based upon implementation of current policy and makes a variety of assumptions regarding employment, growth of payroll tax receipts, and hospital costs that may or may not be on target. However, the trustees note, shorter-term projections are more likely to be accurate than longer-term projects — and seven years is not that far away.

The trustees’ report triggers a formal Medicare funding warning. President Trump must submit to Congress proposed legislation to respond to the warning within 15 days after submission of the FY 2020 budget. Congress is then required to consider the legislation on an expedited basis.

The political problem is that successive Congresses and presidential administrations have kicked the can down the road for so long that any fix will be politically painful. Rather than phasing in remedies over time, allowing a smoother glide path to solvency and making it easier for affected parties to adapt, Congress will have to enact dramatic remedies…. unless it decides to kick the can down the road again, perhaps by funding the Medicare HI  gap with general revenues.

According to the Congressional Budget Office’s most recent forecast, the federal government is on track to be running a $1.076 trillion budget deficit by 2026. Maybe Congress will say, what the heck, what’s another $52 billion, let’s fund the HI deficit with borrowed dollars. But maybe it won’t. If there’s another recession between now and then, the fiscal outlook could be a lot more alarming than it is today.

Winter is coming. Reforming the federal government is hopeless. Virginia’s only hope is maintaining a fiscally robust state and local government.

Make The Next Round A Double

USS Gerald R Ford CVN 78 Christening 2013

Virginia leaders like to get up on their soapboxes and worry that Virginia is too dependent on defense spending and promise elaborate strategies to diversify the economy.  Be grateful in some places the focus remains on building more combat ships at Newport News Shipbuilding, keeping its 20,000 plus employees and thousands of suppliers and contractors fully engaged well into the future.

As the House and Senate in Washington inch toward a fiscal year 2019 defense budget, the House has offered a version that expands on the Trump Administration’s proposal by setting up a single order for two nuclear aircraft carriers.

USS New Mexico Crossing Hampton Roads

The Senate isn’t there yet.  CVN 80, the future U.S.S. Enterprise, is already in the early stages of construction but the main construction contract has not been signed.  The proposal is to contract for the unnamed CVN 81 at the same time.

Huntington Ingalls Industries, parent of the shipyard, claims that ordering two carriers at the same time would save the Navy $1.6 billion because it would allow more negotiating leverage with the supply chain and would keep the workforce steady state. While working there I heard it was ideal to start a new carrier every four or five years, but the gap between them recently has been more like seven years.  One result of that is a labor valley every so often.

Two carriers included in a single contract would still need to be built in sequence, since there remains only one dry dock and crane capable of accommodating the assembly process. But as Enterprise sailed out of Dry Dock 12, the pre-built sections of CVN 81 would be ready to start going in. Enterprise will be the replacement for the first-of-its-class U.S.S. Nimitz, CVN 68, aging into its 40s and nearing retirement.

The ship in the dry dock now is CVN 79, the future U.S.S. John F. Kennedy. She is about 80 percent structurally complete and her christening and launch date are coming up fast. Debate continues over the utility of the large deck nuclear carrier in this submarine and missile-infested world, but it remains one weapons platform that our rivals obviously covet but cannot yet duplicate.

There is more potential good news for Virginia in the House version of the defense plan. The Navy is now starting two Virginia Class submarines annually, splitting the work between Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics, but the old Los Angeles Class boats are retiring fast. The House adds a third submarine start in 2022 and 2023 – which is also when construction of the first new ballistic missile submarine, the future U.S.S. Columbia, should be in full swing at both Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat.

Finally in the mid-2020s the aforementioned U.S.S. Nimitz returns to the yard for decommissioning of her nuclear components. That’s a couple thousand more jobs, too. So diversify the economy, certainly, but as they say in politics: Don’t forget your base.

After watching the christening of the U.S.S. George Bush CVN 78 in October 2006 I was heading out on Warwick Boulevard and there was a protester with a sign saying the money should have been spent on jobs. That was one clueless ideologue.

Note:  Both attached images were by the excellent staff photographers at NNS.

Can the U.S. Outgrow Its National Debt?

10-year economic growth — the critical variable. Graphic credit: Congressional Budget Office

In previous posts I have described the Republican-backed 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act as a Hail Mary pass, a gamble that by boosting economic growth the United States can outgrow the burden of chronic deficits and a rapidly accumulating national debt. I wasn’t optimistic, but I was willing to wait and see. After the passage of the most recent budget, which will increase spending and push deficits even higher, I became downright pessimistic.

Now comes the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) with its latest 10-year budget forecast, which takes into account the tax cuts and the latest budget. There’s plenty of gloomy news. But the damage isn’t as dreadful as I had feared. There is a glimmer of hope, although it is dim one.

First the bad news: CBO estimates that the deficit for fiscal 2018 will be $218 billion larger than what it had previously forecast. And it projects a cumulative deficit that is $1.6 trillion larger than the $10.1 trillion that it had previously prophesied for the 2018-2027 period. Debt held by the public  (not including Social Security and Medicare trust funds) will rise from 78% of GDP to 96% by the end of the decade.

The CBO also struck a Boomergeddon-like tone by making the following points:

  • Federal spending on interest payments on that debt will increase  substantially, aggravated by an expected increase in interest rates over the next few years.
  • Federal borrowing will reduce national savings. The nation’s capital stock will be smaller, and productivity and total wages will be lower.
  • Lawmakers will have less flexibility to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges.
  • The likelihood of a fiscal crisis in the United States will increase. Investors could become unwilling to finance the government’s borrowing unless they are compensated with very high interest rates. If that happens, interest rates on the federal debt will rise suddenly and sharply.

As the football follows its trajectory into the end zone and a half dozen receivers stretch out their hands to catch it, the outcome of the Hail Mary pass is still “up in the air.” In less metaphorically strained words, the game isn’t over yet.

This CBO statement surprised me: While the federal budget deficit grows sharply over the next few years, later on, between 2023 and 2028, “it stabilizes in relation to the size of the economy, though at a high level by historical standards.”

That’s huge! The danger is that the national debt will grow faster than the economy, thereby posing an ever-increasing burden until the economy collapses. But if that burden stabilizes, even at a higher level, there may be hope that the U.S. can muddle through as (another bad metaphor alert!) the Baby Boomer pig moves through the entitlement pipeline. Eventually, a few decades from now, the entitlement crisis will ease and deficit spending will shrink.

The CBO assumes that tax cuts will goose economic growth this year but that growth will moderate in future years — from a peak of 3.3% this year to 1.8% by 2020, 1.5% for the two years after that, and 1.7% for the five years after that. But a plausible case can be made that a combination of deregulation and tax cuts will stimulate faster long-term growth, even in the face of the inevitably higher interest rates. If so, CBO would be underestimating growth and tax revenue. In this optimistic scenario, growth as a percentage of GDP actually could shrink and Boomergeddon could be averted.

On the gloom-and-doom side, the CBO also assumes steady-state economic growth over the next 10 years. But a recession could knock the props from under the growth projects, running up deficits, the national debt, and interest payments on the debt. Indeed, a major recession could trigger a full-scale fiscal crisis. The current business cycle is already almost 10 years old, one of the longest in U.S. history. What are the odds that it will last 20 years? Almost nil.

The key variable is the rate of economic growth. If it exceeds the CBO’s modest expectations, the U.S. has a fighting chance of avoiding Boomergeddon. If we see another black swan event — a trade war breaking out, North Korea firing a nuclear weapon, Iran blockading the Persian Gulf, the overheated Chinese economy imploding, a run on Italian banks, or a surprise insolvency in the hyper-leveraged, hyper-connected global economy sparking a financial panic — we could experience another 2007-scale recession — but this time with annual $2 trillion-a-year deficits. Hold on to your hats, people, it’s going to be a wild ride.

Medicaid, Pensions Kneecapping State Budgets

Graphic credit: Wall Street Journal

Take heed Governor Ralph Northam! Take heed Virginia House and Senate budget negotiators!

One in five tax dollars collected by state and local governments across the United States go to Medicaid and public-employee health and retirement costs. Of the $136 billion growth in inflation-adjusted taxes collected by state and local governments between 2008 and 2016, two-thirds went to funding Medicaid and pensions, according to the Wall Street Journal:

The picture will get worse as Medicaid expenditures metastasize and pension backlogs build. Medicaid’s annual cost, which was $595 billion in 2017, will exceed $1 trillion in 2026. States pay about 38% of that tab, although the percentage varies from state to state. A relatively affluent state, Virginia pays a higher percentage than average.

As Medicaid and pensions crowd out other spending, states have cut back on higher education, infrastructure, and aid to localities. Across the country, state cuts in support for higher education have prompted public colleges and universities to jack up tuition and fees, thus transferring costs to students and their families.

“The more we stare at the data, the more we realize all roads lead back to Medicaid and pensions,” says Dan White, a director at Moody’s Analytics, of the top three credit rating agencies.

Many localities are just one recession away from bankruptcy. The finances of Illinois, Connecticut, and New Jersey are in particularly perilous condition. Connecticut’s state capital, Hartford, narrowly averted bankruptcy last year. These high-tax states are caught between a rock and a hard place. Increasing state income taxes raises only a fraction of the anticipated revenue because they encourage wealthy taxpayers to leave for lower-tax climes.

States and localities shouldn’t expect much of a bail-out from Uncle Sam. As a different Wall Street Journal article today notes, interest payments on the national debt are doing to the federal government what Medicaid and pensions are doing to state governments.

To be sure, the U.S. federal government enjoys an unparalleled capability to borrow more money. And borrow it will. Interest payments swallowed 8% of federal revenue last year, the highest share of any AAA-rated country. Moody’s thinks that figure will triple to 21.4% by 2027.

“As interest is rising, that crowds out other spending,” says William Foster, a Moody’s analyst.

Many observers point to Japan as a nation with a national debt burden per capita twice that of the U.S. as a reason to be sanguine about the national debt. Japan may have lost its AAA rating, but it still has no problem borrowing. That analysis overlooks something that Japan has that the U.S. does not — a high personal savings rate. The U.S. personal savings rate was 2.4% in 2017. The savings rate in Japan fluctuates wildly from month to month but averaged out to 18% last year. In December, Japan’s personal savings hit the insane rate of 50%. Accordingly, as a percentage of tax revenue, Japan’s interest payments were only 5.3% — lower than the U.S. rate of 8.3%. Also, thanks to massive domestic savings, Japan does not rely upon fickle foreign creditors like the U.S. does.

Regardless, Republicans have pushed through a tax cut that, despite punching up the economic growth rate, will reduce revenues. Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats have joined to enact a budget that boosts both defense spending (a Republican priority) and non-defense spending (a Democratic priority), while refusing to touch entitlements.

“We’re in a full-blown era of free-lunch economics where no one says no to anyone anymore,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee a Responsible Federal Budget, told the Journal.

Virginia’s economic and tax revenues seem manageable for the next year or two, but budgets can unravel with horrifying speed. Very few foresaw the 2008 recession, much less its severity. Very few will see the next recession. Even fewer will be prepared. Will Virginia?

Just a Reminder…

The national debt has passed the $21 trillion mark. It took only six months to get there from $20 trillion. Unlike the last time the U.S. racked up debt this rapidly, the economy is growing, not in a recession. Blame whomever you want — Boomergeddon is coming. It’s just a matter of time.

Comstock Supports the Tax Cuts. Do her Democratic Foes?

Alfredo Ortiz

by Alfredo Ortiz

Democrats have put Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, represented by Republican Barbara Comstock, in their crosshairs in their attempt to take back the House of Representatives on Election Day in November.

Seven opportunistic Democratic challengers have entered the race so far, recognizing their chance to represent this historic swing district that favored Hillary Clinton by ten percentage points in 2016, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam by a similar margin in 2017. Politico has named this race one of the top-10 to watch on Election Day.

Last October, Public Policy Polling found Rep. Comstock trailing a generic Democrat opponent by nine points, with a favorability rating of just 32 percent. “She’s a clear underdog,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, the day after the election last year.

But a lot has changed since then. Most notably, Congressional Republicans, including Comstock, passed historic tax cuts over the opposition of every Congressional Democrat. Virginia 10 voters deserve to know whether Comstock’s Democratic challengers would carry out national Democratic leaders’ promise and vote to repeal these tax cuts if they are victorious.

The answer to this question is especially important in Virginia’s 10th District because tax cuts have disproportionately helped its residents. The median income in the counties that make up the district are among the highest in the nation at over $120,000, meaning the median constituent is taking home thousands of dollars more each year as a result of less federal tax withholding.

Virginia’s 10th has also significantly benefited from the trend of hundreds of major national employers directing billions of dollars to millions of employees because of their tax cut savings. For instance, Capital One Bank, one of Virginia’s biggest employers whose headquarters are located in the 10th District, used its tax cut savings to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. And Walmart, the state’s largest employer, raised its base wage to $11 and gave its employees significant bonuses because of the tax cut.

Verizon and BB&T, the third and fifth largest employers in Northern Virginia, respectively, are also rewarding their employees with share payouts or $1,200 bonuses. And other major state employers including Bank of America, The Home Depot, AT&T, Starbucks, and Comcast are giving their employees up to $1,000 bonuses because of the tax cuts Rep. Comstock helped pass. These are the same tax cuts that  congressional Democrats called “theApocalypse,” “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress,” “a heist,” and “highway robbery.”

Despite this vast evidence demonstrating that tax cuts have been a major success in allowing ordinary Americans to keep more of their hard-earned money, leading Democrats are doubling-down on their opposition and promising to repeal them if they retake Congress. Pelosi has called for “replace and repeal.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Shumer has called for “a drastic overhaul.” Such moves would raise taxes on ordinary residents of Virginia’s 10th District and tens of million Americans across the country.

Democrats’ unwillingness to admit they made a mistake by opposing tax cuts has coincided with their House of Representatives polling advantage being cut in half. Democratic challengers in Virginia’s 10th District haven’t been clear about whether they would repeal the tax cuts if they win in November. Voters must demand to know where they stand on this issue given the implications for their paychecks. The answers might make the the difference between Democrats hitting their target or not.

Alfredo Ortiz is president and CEO of the Job Creators Network.

Enjoy It While It Lasts

Woo hoo! Tax cuts and spending increases — it doesn’t get any better than this. The United States is about to enjoy its biggest fiscal stimulus since Barack Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. All this spending and tax cutting is going to feel great for the next couple of years — especially here in Virginia, which could be the single biggest beneficiary in the country of the budget deal’s $165 billion boost to Pentagon spending over the next two years. Who needs Amazon when you’ve got the federal government with its limitless credit card?

Let’s enjoy the booming economy while it lasts. But let’s not fool ourselves either. When Virginia’s GDP suddenly perks up and revenues start surging, let’s not pretend that we have somehow “turned the corner” and are experiencing a “new normal.” It would be a huge mistake to see the fiscal stimulus as anything more than superficial prosperity purchased largely through the massive accumulation of federal debt. (I’ll give corporate tax restructuring and deregulation credit for being more than passing phenomena, but much of the economic euphoria will come from old-fashion deficit spending.)

Unfortunately, if something is too good to be true… it’s probably not true. Inflation, which has been quiescent for a decade, is now surpassing 2% annually. When you cut taxes, increase spending, and tighten monetary policy in the face of increasing inflation while the private-sector economy is booming, you get higher interest rates.

Higher interest rates will do two things. They will dampen the economy, acting as a regulator on growth. And they will increase the cost of borrowing for the world’s largest debtor, Uncle Sam, with $20 trillion in national debt. As new debt is financed and old debt rolls over, each 1% increase in interest rates eventually will add $200 billion a year to federal spending. We could find that a strong economy is actually worse for the deficit and national debt than a weak economy!

Since I wrote “Boomergeddon” almost eight years ago, the United States has squandered its opportunity to get its fiscal house in order. The problem, as I outlined back then, is that Democrats refuse to cut domestic spending, Republicans refuse to cut defense spending, and Republicans talk about cutting entitlements but are too scared to act because Democrats would crucify them. As we’ve seen in the latest budget deal, nothing about that political logic has changed.

Meanwhile, the Medicare Hospital trust fund is scheduled to run out be depleted in eleven years, and the Social Security trust fund is scheduled to run out in sixteen years. In 2019 when the Medicare trust fund runs out and Congress looks for ways to maintain benefits, the U.S. budget will be running annual deficits of about $1.5 trillion a year — and that’s according to a June 2017 forecast that doesn’t reflect the recent tax cuts and spending hikes, and assumes no big recessions between now and then. Faced with the prospect of putting Medicare and Social Security on a pay-as-you-go basis or dramatically raising payroll taxes, the U.S. will be facing the greatest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. This political armageddon — or, as I call it, Boomergeddon — is only a decade away.

Oblivious to all this, the General Assembly is perilously close to agreeing to expand the Medicaid program in Virginia predicated upon federal promises to pay for 90% of the expansion — and even then the state is committing itself to adding roughly $300 million to its biennial budget. The Republicans’ insistence upon restricting the program to adults who are working or seeking work is nothing more than a face-saving device that will not alter the underlying fiscal dynamics. Ten years from now, when Uncle Sam is dealing with an exploding Medicare system, Virginia’s retired state employees, local employees, and teachers will be depleting the Virginia Retirement System. The VRS’s $20 billion in unfunded liabilities are, for reasons I have explained previously, likely to get get bigger, not smaller. At some point between now and ten years from now, we’ll also have to acknowledge that the Washington Metro isn’t the only component of the state’s transportation infrastructure facing a multibillion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlog.

Sadly, human nature being what it is, Virginia state and local governments will interpret the Trump boom as the sign of enduring prosperity, not an unsustainable spurt, and elected officials will crank up borrowing to pay for the endless list of “unmet needs,” which never seems to shrink in good times or bad.

I don’t know why I bother sounding the alarm. No one’s going to listen. Nothing’s going to change. But I can always hope, when it comes time to dissect the greatest social and economic tragedy in nearly a century, maybe someone will remember that someone saw it coming.

The New Normal: Rising Interest Rates

U.S. Treasury Department

The United States enjoyed a three-decade decline in interest rates, beginning with the early-1980s quashing of inflation by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volker and culminating with Ben Bernanke’s Quantitative Easing in the mid-2010s. Lower interest rates, which made equities look more favorable by comparison, helped drive stock market indices like the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 to record highs.

Now the age of declining interest rates is over. Dead. Pound the nail in the coffin. Dig the grave.

The implications of this seismic shift are dire for the world’s largest debtor, the U.S. federal government. But state and local governments have cause for concern, too.

The manic bull market for stocks took its first big drubbing earlier this week when U.S. Treasury yields took an unexpected uptick. It is finally dawning on financial markets that as good as the Trump tax cuts may prove to be for the economy, they will increase federal budget deficits and borrowing, which will pressure interest rates higher. Even accounting for a stronger economy that pumps up tax revenues, nonpartisan groups say the tax law could add $1 trillion to deficits over the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, the Treasury Borrowing Advisory Committee has estimated that the Treasury will need to borrow a net $955 billion in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2018, up from $519 billion the previous year. Borrowing will increase further to $1,083 billion next year and $1,128 billion the following year. That’s with a strong economy, not a recession.

The Treasury borrowed even larger sums back in 2009 and 2010 as the U.S. economy struggled to pull out of the global recession. But the economic picture looked very different back then, allowing the U.S. to finance $1.6 trillion annual deficits without driving interest rates higher. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

Back then, global demand for safe assets was high and investors gobbled up U.S. Treasury issues, pushing up Treasury prices and down their yields. The Federal Reserve had also cut short-term interest rates to near zero and was beginning a series of programs to buy government debt itself, putting further upward pressure on Treasure prices and downward pressure on interest rates. …

Treasury’s increased borrowing now comes against a much different economic and financial backdrop. The economy is strong and inflation is expected to rise gradually in the months ahead. In response, the Fed is pushing short-term interest rates higher and allowing its portfolio of Treasury and mortgage debt to shrink as bonds mature.

Another factor, I might add, is the weakness of the dollar, which also discourages foreign purchases of U.S. debt and adds to inflationary pressure.

Why am I writing about the end of the era of low interest rates in a blog dedicated to Virginia public policy? Because state and local governments, colleges, universities, economic development authorities, and public service entities are big borrowers, too. Higher interest rates makes life harder for all of them.

To draw from the latest headlines, Mayor Levar Stoney wants to increase the City of Richmond meals tax to fund school building improvements because the city has maxed out its debt capacity and can borrow no more without undermining its AA bond rating. Likewise the Commonwealth of Virginia has borrowed close to its cap, constraining the state’s ability to issue new debt.

Virginia policy limits annual service on its long-term debt to 5% of General Fund revenues. Debt service can be broken into two main parts: the principal borrowed and the interest paid. It is axiomatic: If interest rates increase, so does the annual debt service…. Which means the state can borrow less.

Most important of all, Virginia has a massive unfunded pension liability. That liability, about $20 billion now, has shrunk modestly in the past couple of years thanks to the strong performance of the Virginia Retirement System (VRS) equities portfolio. The next VRS report, reflecting results from the astonishing Trump-era bull market, likely will be positive. Virginia, it will appear, is making continual progress in whittling down its liabilities. No one will be concerned.

But the stock market cannot possibly extend the past decade’s performance into the future. While earnings may continue to improve, stock prices will be dampened by interest rates and shrinking price-earnings multiples. Do not be deceived. The turning point in the bond market does not augur well for either the United States with its $20 trillion national debt or Virginia with its more modest obligations.

The GOP’s Hail Mary Pass

House Speaker Paul Ryan savors his biggest legislative victory.

Faced with a chronically slow-growth economy, expanding deficits, mounting federal debt, and a looming funding crisis for the U.S. welfare state, Republican congressmen are, to borrow a football metaphor, throwing a hail Mary pass into the end zone in the desperate hope of scoring a winning touchdown. They are gambling that tax cuts combined with President Trump’s deregulation agenda will boost economic growth from roughly 2% per year to 3% or more, reducing the tax burden for millions of Americans, creating new jobs, boosting wages, and bending the curve on long-term deficit projections.

Convinced that the tax cuts will prove to be a disaster for everyone but the rich, Democrats and the mainstream media have subjected the tax plan to relentless, unremitting attacks. Viewed in terms of static economic analysis, we are told, the tax cuts will inflate federal deficits by a cumulative $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Suddenly, deficits matter!

Republicans respond that measures in the bill — accelerating write-offs for business investment, encouraging the repatriation of hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate profits to the U.S., and making the corporate tax rate more competitive internationally — will stimulate economic growth. Unlike the Democrats, I think that much will prove to be true. My question is: Will faster economic growth generate enough new tax revenue to offset that $1.5 trillion? Longer term, will it avert Boomergeddon?

Let’s dig into the numbers. The Congressional Budget Office’s current 10-year budget forecast assumes a modest 2.1% annual growth rate over the next ten years, a slight uptick from the trend established during the Obama years. But economic growth has accelerated to roughly 3% in the past couple of quarters, and the Trump administration’s deregulation + tax cuts strategy could nudge it even higher. Let us assume for purposes of discussion that, thanks to the tax cuts, the U.S. can grow the economy at a sustainable rate of 3.1% annually. What does an extra percentage point in economic growth get us in deficit fighting?

Well, the latest CBO federal revenue forecast for the next ten years is $43 trillion. A 1% boost in federal revenues will yield $430 billion, not nearly enough to close the $1.5 trillion gap. The analysis gets a bit more complicated because economic growth and higher incomes push Americans into higher tax brackets while a roaring stock market generates massive capital gains. So a 1% increase in economic growth could produce more than a 1% increase in federal revenue. Let’s go for the gusto and double the growth-to-revenue ratio, assuming that federal taxes increase actually increase by $86 billion per year over current projections. That’s still doesn’t close the ten-year $1.5 trillion gap.

Could the economy grow much faster than 3.1% over the decade ahead? I’m skeptical. First, Baby Boomers are retiring in droves, and the working-age population is stagnating. A growing labor force supports economic growth; a stagnant labor force undermines it. Second, the Federal Reserve Board, intent upon unwinding the monetary stimulus of the Obama years, will continue to raise interest rates. It goes without saying that higher interest rates are a damper to economic growth.

In summary, in my untutored opinion, I think that the U.S. will see modestly faster economic growth over the next few years. The Dems have predicted economic Armageddon. They won’t get it. The lives of millions of Americans will improve… in the short run. But Republicans are deluding themselves if they think modestly faster economic growth will reduce the nation’s long-term structural budget deficit. Entitlement spending is still running out of control, and the nation still faces a hideously painful fiscal reckoning. Our 20-year future still looks like Boomergeddon.

Entitlements, Fiscal Limits and the Looming Age of Rage

Now that Democrats are close to parity with Republicans in the House of Delegates, there is renewed talk of Medicaid expansion in Virginia. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Trump and Republicans are pushing a tax-cut plan that would spur economic growth but, even with stronger growth, would increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Nobody is talking about the $14.6 trillion national debt except as a cudgel against partisan foes. Even as Medicare, Disability, and Old Age and Survivors trust funds are projected to run out within a single generation, entitlement reform is not up for discussion.

Just a reminder… Here’s are U.S. budget deficits forecast by the Congressional Budget Office without counting proposed GOP tax cuts:

The “on-budget” deficit is what we conventionally think of the deficit. It does not include the draw-down of “off-budget” Medicare and Social Security trust funds. Data source: Congressional Budget Office.

Within eight years, the U.S. will be running $1 trillion-per-year deficits every year, pretty much forever. And the CBO forecast does not take into account the likelihood of a recession or two over the next ten years, in which case deficits will metastasize.

And here’s the off-budget forecast. Payouts for Medicare hospitalization, Social Security disability and Social Security old-age programs exceed tax revenues, but interest income on the assets will keep the respective trust funds in the black for the next couple of years. By 2020, however, the off-budget numbers shift  into deficit mode and plunge rapidly thereafter.

Barring major changes in U.S. spending programs or economic growth, here’s when the trust funds are expected to run out, according to Medicare and Social Security trust estimates:

  • 2028: Disability trust fund runs out of money.
  • 2029: Medicare hospitalization trust fund runs out of money.
  • 2035: Social Security trust fund runs out of money.

Back when the Simpson-Bowles commission tackled the deficit issue in 2010 — the last time Americans thought seriously about entitlement reform — the county had 25 years before keystone social safety net programs imploded. If Congress had acted then, it could have put the trust funds into fiscal balance with relatively minor tweaks (slightly higher payroll taxes, slightly reduced benefits, slightly older retirement ages) that had a large cumulative effect over many years. But a decade of delay will require more painful sacrifices, which means they likely never will be made.

If nothing gets done until the trust funds run out of money — what I call Boomergeddon — the programs will have to cut benefits to match revenues generated. We are only twelve years from massive dislocations to the Medicare program, and 17 years from disruptions to Social Security. Baby Boomers beware, your retirement will be a lot uglier than you realize.

As for those $1 trillion+ on-budget deficits every year, they put Virginia at special risk. Any Congressional effort to tame deficits without touching entitlements will require cuts to discretionary spending, the biggest pot of which is related to defense, intelligence and homeland security…. which happens to be Virginia’s biggest industry sector. Son of Sequester will subject the Virginia economy to chronic economic stress and fiscal pain. But instead of dealing with Virginia’s long-term structural issues, the next session of the General Assembly could well consume itself in a renewed debate over expanding Medicaid.

As Americans speak no evil, see no evil, and hear no evil, we hurtle toward an era of brutal fiscal limits, broken promises to millions of Americans, and polarization and rage that will surpass anything we see today.