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.