THE FEDERAL budget deficit reached $1 trillion in 2019, for the first time since the Great Recession, and, under current law will average $1.3 trillion through 2030, according to the latest estimates by the Congressional Budget Office. Federal debt held by the public will grow from 81 percent of gross domestic product to a post-1946 record of 98 percent. This is no problem — according to much commentary based, admittedly, in the failure of past warnings of dire short-term consequences from deficits to materialize. Certainly, Congress and the 2020 presidential candidates are behaving as if deficits don’t matter. And perhaps the long-feared rebellion of the bond markets will never happen in a world starved for safe-haven assets such as U.S. Treasury bonds.

On the other hand, maybe it’s still true that there is no free lunch, and that there are risks in our present course, including but not limited to a possible spike in interest rates, plus the long-term costs to future generations. The United States will enter its next crisis, foreign or domestic, with much of its capacity to borrow already taken up by preexisting priorities. That is, the United States is borrowing at a pace previously seen only during major wars and recessions — yet it is generally at peace, with full employment.

A wise government hedges against the risks of debt accumulation, not necessarily by slashing deficits in the short run, but by sticking to a long-term fiscal trajectory that includes plenty of margin for error. We were not quite on such a path as of January 2017, though the annual deficit had fallen by about two-thirds under President Barack Obama. And then the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress took office. Now we’re seriously off track, due in large part to tax cuts skewed heavily in favor of the wealthy and businesses that were enacted under President Trump — for the sake of what has turned out to be only a modest short-term boost to economic growth. Spending, driven overwhelmingly by programs such as Medicare and Social Security for the growing retiree population, will increase by 2.4 percent of GDP by 2030, according to CBO, while revenue will rise just 1.6 percent; you do the math. Remember, this is a structural deficit, enacted into law, not forced by a recessionary plunge in revenue and surge in unemployment spending. And that’s assuming major parts of the 2017 tax cut expire in 2026 as scheduled; in the more politically realistic scenario where Congress extends them, the gap between spending and revenue would be even wider.

Yes, much of the CBO’s upward revision in deficit estimates since last year is due to higher discretionary spending, backed by Democrats, and to additional tax cuts adopted in the recently passed appropriations bill which also enjoyed Democratic support, such as elimination of Obamacare’s medical-device and health-insurance-excise taxes. Nevertheless, the GOP’s systematic undermining of the federal government’s revenue base, in the face of known future obligations to Social Security and Medicare that Republicans as well as Democrats are reluctant to curtail, was an act of fiscal irresponsibility for which the party may one day be judged harshly — except in the unlikely event that there really is a free lunch.

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