(02 February 2021) Based on the original paper by Dr. David L. Blond, Principle Researcher and President, QuERI-International. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of Knoema Holdings and its Executive Board.

In November 2020, US voters went to the ballot box and sent a Democrat back into the White House to stare down a federal deficit that grew under President Trump from $19 trillion in January 2016 to more than $27 trillion the day that Joe Biden was inaugurated. As you can imagine, the deficit hawks are out in force once again. The usual argument against more deficit spending, even in the midst of a disaster like the COVID-19 shutdown and prevailing economic conditions, is that the US can’t afford to spend that kind of money.  

For true deficit hawks it’s this idea of repaying the debt, of the burden on future generations, that leads to the ideal of fiscal conservatism. So, let’s pull that thread, as they say: If the United States were to adopt that logic and start down this repayment path, given the way the US allocates discretionary and non-discretionary expenditures, what options are available today?

  • The US Department of Defense is the largest single discretionary expenditure in the Federal budget, a $750 billion budget item and growing. If you were to cut that in half and use the savings to pay down debt, in addition to trimming around the edges of discretionary social programs to the tune of another $25 billion, you could maybe net $325 billion to pay down the debt (after accounting for social assistance for jobs lost to cuts in the defense sector.) But this is not enough to slow the increase in the size of the debt outstanding because we still have to pay interest.  
  • If we turn to non-discretionary spending, we find that most of the money for Medicare and Medicaid goes to the oldest and frailest and the most costly to keep alive. So, what, we'd phase out government payments for people over 85? Gradually raise the retirement age and collect social security payroll taxes on all income earned without a cap, not cutting taxes?

It is interesting how when you start to study the debt question and pull in the details over the past 40 years of debt, GDP, and interest rates, and match it against who was the US President at the time, everything becomes much clearer. So, too, does an essential point about the debt overhang and what it does or does not mean for an economy like the United States. Rather than focus on debt, we should also consider the relative usefulness of deficit spending, e.g the relative value of each dollar of debt to the change in GDP. Failure to spend is very likely more dangerous than spending too much. 

Coronavirus Data and Insights

Live data and insights on Coronavirus around the world, including detailed statistics for the US, EU, and China — confirmed and recovered cases, deaths, alternative data on economic activities, customer behavior, supply chains, and more.


U.S. Needs More Debt to Sustain Growth

(07 October 2021) At the end of June of 2021, the U.S. government hit the public debt ceiling of $28.4 trillion. According to U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen's estimates, under the existing debt limit the U.S. government will have to stop paying on its obligations such as social security programs, salaries and interest payments on treasury securities on October 18. Prolonged debates and lack of consensus in the U.S. Congress on the debt limit led to a stock market decline through September, on the expectation that government spending cuts to sustain the debt level amid high...

Half Century of US Food Stamps

In 1964 United States by the Food Stamp Act of 1964 have re-established the Food Stamp Program intended to provide food-purchasing assistance for low- and no-income people living in the U.S. In 2008 the program was renamed as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As of 2014, 46.5 million Americans or 14.6% of resident population* were receiving SNAP benefits (monthly average). The average SNAP client received a monthly benefit of $125.35. Total program cost has exceeded 74 billion dollars. SNAP is the largest food assistance program in the country, reaching more...

US Social Security & Medicare Outlook

Next year, the US Old Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund (OASI) for the first time since early 1980s will have a deficit of 13 billion dollars. According to the projections of the US Whitehouse Office of Management and Budget, by 2020 the deficit of the largest US retirement fund will deepen to $123 bln - the level never seen in history. Despite the expected surpluses in others social and Medicare funds, the US federal social security system as a whole will become insolvent in the next 5 years. Aggregate deficit of the US Social Security trust funds (OASI and the Disability...

US State Spending and Revenues

The latest edition of NASBO’s State Expenditure Report finds that total state spending in fiscal 2014 is estimated to have grown at its fastest pace since the recession, largely due to an increase in federal Medicaid funds as a majority of states chose to expand enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. Total state spending growth in fiscal 2013 was more modest; however, total state expenditure did return to positive growth following declines in fiscal 2012. Since its inception in 1987, the National Association's of Budget Officers (NASBO) State Expenditure Report has developed...