Halve The Deficit? Good Luck, Obama

(This piece appeared on NPR.org on 2/25/09)

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama pledged to cut the federal budget deficit in half in four years.

Keeping that pledge won’t be easy.

The Congressional Budget Office is forecasting a deficit for this year of $1.2 trillion.

That forecast does not include the spending package Congress just passed and Obama signed that will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit over the next four years. And that doesn’t include unforeseen spending increases in further bailouts for Fannie and Freddie or AIG or Bank of America or GM or the state of California or whoever else shows up in Washington with a hand out.

So Obama probably needs to cut spending or raise taxes by at least $700 billion a year. To give you an idea of how much money that is, that’s about the amount the payroll tax currently collects. The payroll tax is about 15 percent, shared between employer and employee. Doubling that rate to 30 percent would add an extra $700 billion if — and it’s an impossible if — if a tax rate of 30 percent didn’t lead employers to reduce their number of employees or force workers to reduce their hours.

Besides, Obama also promised Tuesday night that 98 percent of American families, those earning less than $250,000, would not pay an extra dime in taxes. So to cut the deficit in half, he needs to raise taxes on the richest Americans and look for spending cuts.

He claims to have found $200 billion per year in spending we can do without. Assuming those spending cuts actually materialize, that still leaves $500 billion in higher taxes for the richest Americans.

In 2006, the latest year we have data for, the top 2 percent of tax returns yielded around $500 billion in revenue. So to cut the deficit in half, Obama will have to roughly double the tax rates on the top 2 percent. I don’t think that strategy will be politically viable or economically productive.

What I think will happen instead, is that he will simply settle for running larger deficits for a while, continuing to borrow money from our fellow citizens and from foreigners, and hoping that the interest rates we offer on those loans don’t start to rise because people start to realize that no asset, even treasuries, is risk-free.

The cheery scenario is the economy grows like gangbusters and tax revenues surge without increases in rates. Could happen, but I am not optimistic. Too many unknowns lie ahead.

Every president who inherits a deficit promises to cut it somewhere down the road. Only one president in recent years has kept that promise — Bill Clinton. But he was helped by six years of Republicans in the House and Senate. When the White House and the Congress are from the same party, it’s very hard to say no to key constituencies that expect rewards for past support. If Obama is really serious about cutting the deficit down the road, he will almost certainly have to fight with his own party.

Russell Roberts is an economics professor at George Mason University, a distinguished scholar in the Mercatus Center and a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is the host of the weekly podcast, EconTalk. His latest book is The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity.

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