It is clear that debate over the fiscal deficit and austerity will dominate Lew’s confirmation hearings and at least his initial period in office, if he ends up getting confirmed. But without pursuing any deep explorations about who should be taxed more or less, or whether 47 percent of U.S. citizens are indeed freeloaders, I would just propose that Lew be willing to recognize three sets of very simple, irrefutable facts about the current U.S. fiscal condition. Here they are:
Fact #1: The U.S. government is not facing a fiscal crisis.
In any common sense meaning of the term “fiscal crisis,” we would be referring to the government’s inability to make its forthcoming payments to its creditors. By that common sense definition, the U.S. federal government is in just about the best shape it has ever been. Figure 1 below tells the story.
According to the most recent data from the third quarter of 2012 (which we term “2012.3”), the federal government spent 7.7 percent of its total expenditures on interest to its creditors. As the figure shows, that figure is less than half of the average figure under the full 12 years of Republican Presidents Reagan and Bush, when the government paid, on average, 16.8 percent of the total budget to cover interest payments. Right now, as we see, government interest payments are at near historic lows, not highs. As Treasury Secretary-designate, Lew needs to just state this obvious, and highly relevant point. To my knowledge, it has been heretofore completely left out of the insider-D.C. fiscal cliff debates, by Lew, Obama, and Geithner, to say nothing of the Republicans.
Fact #2: Interest rates on government bonds are at historic lows.