NPR Tries to Scare People About the Deficit

Billionaire Peter Peterson is spending lots of money to get people to worry about the debt and deficits rather than focus on the issues that will affect their lives. National Public Radio is doing its part to try to promote Peterson’s cause with a Morning Edition piece that began by telling people that the next president “will have to wrestle with the federal debt.” This is not true, but it is the hope of Peter Peterson that he can distract the public from the factors that will affect their lives, most importantly the upward redistribution of income, and obsess on the country’s relative small deficit. (A larger deficit right now would promote growth and employment.)

According to the projections from the Congressional Budget Office, interest on the debt will be well below 2.0 percent of GDP when the next president takes office. This is lower than the interest burden faced by any pre-Obama president since Jimmy Carter. The interest burden is projected to rise to 3.0 percent of GDP by 2024 when the next president’s second term is ending, but this would still be below the burden faced by President Clinton when he took office.

Furthermore, the reason for the projected rise in the burden is a projection that the Federal Reserve Board is projected to raise interest rates. If the Fed kept interest rates low, then the burden would be little changed over the course of the decade. Of course the Fed’s decision to raise interest rates will have a far greater direct impact on people’s lives than increasing interest costs for the government. (The president appoints 7 of the 12 voting members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee that sets interest rates.)

The reason the Fed raises interest rates is to slow the economy and keep people from getting jobs. This will prevent the labor market from tightening, which will prevent workers from having enough bargaining power to get pay increases. In that case, the bulk of the gains from economic growth will continue to go to those at the top end of the income distribution.

The main reason that we saw strong wage growth at the end of the 1990s was that Alan Greenspan ignored the accepted wisdom in the economics profession, including among the liberal economists appointed to the Fed by President Clinton, and allowed the unemployment rate to drop well below 6.0 percent. At the time, almost all economists believed that if the unemployment rate fell much below 6.0 percent that inflation would spiral out of control. The economists were wrong, inflation was little changed even though the unemployment rate remained below 6.0 from the middle of 1995 until 2001, and averaged just 4.0 percent for all of 2000. (Economists, unlike custodians and dishwashers, suffer no consequence in their careers for messing up on the job.)

Anyhow, if the Fed raises interest rates to keep the labor market from tightening as it did in the late 1990s, this would effectively be depriving workers of the 1.0-1.5 percentage points in real wage growth they could expect if they were getting their share of productivity growth. This is like an increase in the payroll tax of 1.0-1.5 percentage points annually. Over the course of a two-term president, this would be the equivalent of an 8.0-12.0 percentage point increase in the payroll tax.

That would be a really big deal. But Peter Peterson and apparently NPR would rather have the public worry about the budget deficit.

It is also worth noting that the five think tanks mentioned in this piece that prepared deficit plans were paid by the Peter Peterson Foundation to prepare defict plans. They did not do it because they considered it the best use of their time.