As the year comes to a close, undoubtedly we begin to reflect on the ups and downs of the previous year. But lawmakers in Congress may be looking back a little further than that after reading the Congressional Budget Office's (CBO) latest report on the federal debt and deficit.
Last week, the non-partisan budget agency released an update to its November report, "Choices for Deficit Reduction." The report offers some sober analysis of the country's mounting debts and deficits, which are at historically high levels. The graphic below puts things into some perspective:
As CBO shows, not only are total outlays higher than they've been over the previous three decades, they are on pace to grow even more, and the revenues they're funded by are coming in relatively slowly. That particular trend illustrates the fact that for all the talk of a recovery, the U.S. economy still has a long way to go before things return to pre-recession levels of prosperity. As CBO explains:
"Making the task of deficit reduction more complicated is the economy's slow recovery from the severe recession. By CBO's estimate, the economy is now about 5 million jobs short of where it would be if the unemployment rate was down to its sustainable level and participation in the labor force was back up to its trend. The shortage of jobs has occurred mostly because demand for goods and services has been weak relative to the productive capacity of the economy."
But historical trends mean very little if we can't draw some conclusion for policy and outcomes going forward. CBO paints a rather harsh picture of where the current path of spending and borrowing at such high levels may lead:
"Because federal debt is already unusually high relative to GDP, further increases in that debt could be especially harmful. ... Higher debt would lead to larger interest payments; making those payments would eventually require some combination of lower noninterest spending and higher taxes. In addition, increases in debt tend to reduce national saving, leading to more borrowing from abroad and less domestic investment, which in turn reduces people's future income relative to what it would otherwise be. Also, when debt rises, lawmakers are less able to use tax and spending policies to respond to unexpected challenges, such as economic downturns or international crises. Rising debt could itself precipitate a fiscal crisis by undermining investors' confidence in the government's ability to manage the budget."
At the end of the day, deficit reduction matters a great deal, and is ultimately a matter of either reducing spending, increasing taxes significantly, or both. Lawmakers will have to make a decision about which direction to pursue when they return to Washington for 2014.