by James A. Bacon
Blame who you want for this sad state of affairs — it’s always the other guy’s fault, right? — but after six years of shrinking federal government deficits, red ink is on the rise again. And unless Congress enacts significant budget reforms, deficits will get worse every year pretty much forever until the wheels fall off the bus.
The chart above comes from a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which, to my knowledge, is not funded by the Koch Brothers. What should be really scary is that the forecast is based upon the assumption of slow-but-steady economic growth (about 2% annually) over the next 10 years — without a recession, a totally improbable supposition. The current business cycle, though anemic, is seven years old, and the global economic situation is a mess. When a recession does occur, revenues will decline, spending will climb and deficits will shoot higher.
Some will comfort themselves from the chart above by observing that CBO’s projected deficits for the next 10 years are no worse than the deficits of the Reagan/Bush I era. That’s true, assuming we don’t have a recession, in which case it won’t be true. But such thumb-sucking ignores the fact that we have a $19 trillion national debt, which, as a percentage of the economy, is higher than at any time since the Korean War. It ignores the fact that the percentage of the budget on auto-pilot (entitlements and interest) will be far higher, which will give Congress far less latitude to cut spending should it need to. It ignores the fact that the Federal Reserve Board today is pursuing a highly stimulative, near-zero interest policy today, in contrast to the slam-on-the-brakes interest policy of the early 1980s. And it ignores the fact that the 1980s-era economy had greater growth potential than our economy today with its aging workforce, debilitating tax code, over-regulation and seriously impaired global economy.
What does this imply for us mere mortals residing south of the Potomac? President Obama and Congress made a pact with the devil to jack up discretionary spending in the latest budget, thus easing the pain of sequestration. But long-term, the prognosis for Virginia’s federally dependent economy is grim.
Expressed as a percentage of the economy, federal discretionary spending (which includes defense spending) will continue to shrink as mandated spending and interest payments hog new revenue dollars. That bodes ill for the military-intelligence-homeland security complex in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Bacon’s bottom line. First the uncontroversial: Virginia needs to ramp up its efforts to diversify its economy away from federal spending. Next, the controversial: Put state and local finances (including pension obligations) on a tighter leash. And then, the super-controversial: Don’t trust federal funding promises for anything. What Uncle Sam giveth, Uncle Sam can taketh away. And that includes federal dollars for Medicaid expansion.