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Dealing With the Budget Deficit: Does the Middle Class Have to Take the Hit?

Monday, 14 November 2011 10:42 By Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research | Op-Ed
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Adam Davidson has a piece in the NYT magazine about how the middle class will have to take a hit to deal with the country’s deficit. It’s a bit quick to reach this conclusion.  

First, the piece too quickly dismisses the possibility of getting substantial additional tax revenue from the wealthy. It presents the income share for those earning more than $1 million as $700 billion, saying that if we increase the tax rate on this group by 10 percentage points (from roughly 30 percent to 40 percent), then this yields just $70 billion a year.

However, if we lower our bar slightly and look to the top 1 percent of households, with adjusted gross incomes of more than $400,000, and update the data to 2012 (from 2009), then we get adjusted gross income for this group of more than $1.4 trillion. Increasing the tax take on this group by 10 percentage points nets us $140 billion a year. If the income of the top 1 percent keeps pace with the projected growth of the economy over the decade, this scenario would get us more than $1.7 trillion over the course of the decade, before counting interest savings. Of course there would be some supply response, so we would collect less revenue than these straight line calculations imply, but it is possible to get a very long way towards whatever budget target we have by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

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There are also other ways to address much of the shortfall. In the case of defense, the baseline projects that military spending will average 4 percent of GDP over the next decade. We had been spending 3 percent of GDP on defense in 2000, and the share had been projected to drop further over the course of the decade. If military spending averaged 3 percent of GDP over the next decade, that would save us $2 trillion before interest savings. There are reasons that people may not want to go that low (also reasons to go lower:  CATO used to advocate a budget about half this size), and it may take time to reduce Defense Department budgets, but it should not be absurd to imagine that we could get by with the same sort of military budget (relative to our economy) that we actually had a decade ago.

Another way in which we could have substantial savings that would be relatively painless is to have the Fed simply keep the bonds that it has purchased as part of its various quantitative easing operations. It currently holds around $3 trillion in bonds. The interest on these bonds is paid to the Fed and then refunded to the Treasury. Last year it refunded close to $80 billion in interest. The projections show that the Fed will sell off these bonds over the next few years so that these interest earnings will fall sharply. However, if it continued to hold the assets, over the course of a decade it could save the government around $800 billion in interest payments. The Fed might have to take other measures to contain inflation (the immediate reason for selling the assets would ostensibly be to raise interest rates and slow the economy), but it has other tools to accomplish this goal, most obviously raising reserve requirements. (The Chinese central bank uses reserve requirements as a main tool for controlling inflation.)

Finally, the big story in any serious discussion of the long-term budget is health care. We pay twice as much per person as people do in other wealthy countries. Since more than half of the tab for our health care is paid by the government, our broken health care system becomes a budget problem. If we paid the same amount per person for our health care as people in other wealthy countries, we would be looking at long-term budget surpluses rather than deficits. The reason that we pay so much more is not that we get better outcomes – we don’t generally. Rather it is that we pay too much to drug companies, hospitals, medical specialists, and others in the health care industry.

We can’t keep on this course on either the public or private side. The real question is whether we look to save money by having people get fewer services or we look to save money by paying providers less. The former could mean, for example, giving seniors a Medicare voucher that we know will not be sufficient to cover the cost of care for most people. In this case, they will just have to do without some amount of care.

The other route involves restructuring the health care system. This is incredibly difficult politically as was seen in the debate over President Obama's health care plan. Nonetheless, in the long-run serious reform is the only option, since the alternative is that large numbers of people (including very middle class people) will not be able to get decent care.

One route to get around the political obstacles is to rely on trade. (Here is a short piece I wrote on trade in health care with Jagdeesh Baghwati.) If we make it easy for people to go abroad for health care and open our doors to qualified foreign doctors, we will eventually be able to undermine the ability of the providers’ lobbies to block reform.

Even before trade has much impact on the structure of the health care industry there are enormous opportunities for large budget savings in health care costs that focus on reducing payments to providers (e.g. lower prescription drug prices in Medicare). These payment cuts would not in any obvious way lead to reduced services.

In short, there is little reason to be talking about imposing increased burdens on the middle class any time soon. For the near term, the budget deficit is clearly not a problem. The financial markets are willing to lend the country large amounts of money at very low rates. Over a longer term, the deficit will pose more of an issue, but most of this pressure will come from health care costs. If these costs can be contained, and we get additional revenue from the top 1 percent and restrain the military budget, then the need for the middle class to bear additional burdens can be pushed out well into the future.

At some point, we likely will need more revenue from the middle class since we will probably want to increase government spending in some areas like infrastructure, education, and research and development. However, this is not a near-term prospect and quite possibly not even something that will be necessary over the course of a decade. Furthermore, if the need for additional revenue comes at a time when the unemployment rate is again down in a 4-5 percent range and real wages are rising, it will be much easier for the middle class to bear.

Dean Baker

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University. He is a regular Truthout columnist and a member of Truthout's Board of Advisers.


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