After a second look, and a few hours reflection, it seems to me there is plenty of meat to chew on in the Greenspan speech, and that after the Iraq problem has found its place in history the problems of the budget deficit may return time-and-time again to haunt the American presidency. Particularly worthy of note is his advocacy of an accrual based accounting system - one which would take into account accumulated liabilities (like pensions and Medicare) - and his indication (the first I have seen from a 'responsible' figure) of the importance immigration will play in determining the level of US pensions and growth. I quote: "short of an outsized acceleration of productivity to well beyond the average pace of the past seven years or a major expansion of immigration the aging of the population now in train will end this state of relative budget tranquility in about a decade's time". Well an increase in productivity over and above the average for the last seven years seems a non-starter with an older workforce, and China approaching fast in the rear view mirror, so that leaves immigration. In fact, just to ram the point home he reiterates it: "short of a major increase in immigration, economic growth cannot be safely counted upon to eliminate deficits and the difficult choices that will be required to restore fiscal discipline". Well done Alan, I know you've been criticised in the past on many counts (and probably with good reason), but in my party its never too late for someone who's seen the light to climb on board. Now lets get to work.
If instead, contrary to our expectations, we find that, despite the removal of the Iraq-related uncertainties, constraints to expansion remain, various initiatives for conventional monetary and fiscal stimulus will doubtless move higher on the policy agenda...........
One notable feature of the budget landscape over the past half century has been the limited movement in the ratio of unified budget outlays to nominal GDP. Over the past five years, that ratio has averaged a bit less than 19 percent, about where it was in the 1960s before it moved up during the 1970s and 1980s. But that pattern of relative stability over the longer term has masked a pronounced rise in the share of spending committed to retirement, medical, and other entitlement programs. Conversely, the share of spending that is subject to the annual appropriations process, and thus that comes under regular review by the Congress, has been shrinking. Such so-called discretionary spending has fallen from two-thirds of total outlays in the 1960s to one-third last year, with defense outlays accounting for almost all of the decline........
Estimating the liabilities implicit in social security is relatively straightforward because that program has many of the characteristics of a private defined-benefit retirement program. Projections of Medicare outlays, however, are far more uncertain even though the rise in the beneficiary populations is expected to be similar. The likelihood of continued dramatic innovations in medical technology and procedures combined with largely inelastic demand and a subsidized third-party payment system engenders virtually open-ended potential federal outlays unless constrained by law. Liabilities for Medicare are probably about the same order of magnitude as those for social security, and as is the case for social security, the date is rapidly approaching when those liabilities will be converted into cash outlays.
Accrual-based accounts would lay out more clearly the true costs and benefits of changes to various taxes and outlay programs and facilitate the development of a broad budget strategy. In doing so, these accounts should help shift the national dialogue and consensus toward a more realistic view of the limits of our national resources as we approach the next decade and focus attention on the necessity to make difficult choices from among programs that, on a stand-alone basis, appear very attractive.
Because the baby boomers have not yet started to retire in force and accordingly the ratio of retirees to workers is still relatively low, we are in the midst of a demographic lull. But short of an outsized acceleration of productivity to well beyond the average pace of the past seven years or a major expansion of immigration, the aging of the population now in train will end this state of relative budget tranquility in about a decade's time. It would be wise to address this significant pending adjustment sooner rather than later. As the President's just-released budget put it, "The longer the delay in enacting reforms, the greater the danger, and the more drastic the remedies will have to be."
Faster economic growth, doubtless, would make deficits far easier to contain. But faster economic growth alone is not likely to be the full solution to currently projected long-term deficits. To be sure, underlying productivity has accelerated considerably in recent years. Nevertheless, to assume that productivity can continue to accelerate to rates well above the current underlying pace would be a stretch, even for our very dynamic economy. So, short of a major increase in immigration, economic growth cannot be safely counted upon to eliminate deficits and the difficult choices that will be required to restore fiscal discipline.
Source: Federal Reserve Board