To achieve economic and financial stability, U.S. fiscal policy must be placed on a sustainable path that ensures that debt relative to national income is at least stable or, preferably, declining over time. As I have emphasized on previous occasions, without significant policy changes, the finances of the federal government will inevitably spiral out of control, risking severe economic and financial damage.1 The increasing fiscal burden that will be associated with the aging of the population and the ongoing rise in the costs of health care make prompt and decisive action in this area all the more critical.
Although the issue of fiscal sustainability must urgently be addressed, fiscal policymakers should not, as a consequence, disregard the fragility of the current economic recovery. Fortunately, the two goals of achieving fiscal sustainability--which is the result of responsible policies set in place for the longer term--and avoiding the creation of fiscal headwinds for the current recovery are not incompatible. Acting now to put in place a credible plan for reducing future deficits over the longer term, while being attentive to the implications of fiscal choices for the recovery in the near term, can help serve both objectives.
Fiscal policymakers can also promote stronger economic performance through the design of tax policies and spending programs. To the fullest extent possible, our nation's tax and spending policies should increase incentives to work and to save, encourage investments in the skills of our workforce, stimulate private capital formation, promote research and development, and provide necessary public infrastructure. We cannot expect our economy to grow its way out of our fiscal imbalances, but a more productive economy will ease the tradeoffs that we face.
Finally, and perhaps most challenging, the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions. The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well, and similar events in the future could, over time, seriously jeopardize the willingness of investors around the world to hold U.S. financial assets or to make direct investments in job-creating U.S. businesses. Although details would have to be negotiated, fiscal policymakers could consider developing a more effective process that sets clear and transparent budget goals, together with budget mechanisms to establish the credibility of those goals. Of course, formal budget goals and mechanisms do not replace the need for fiscal policymakers to make the difficult choices that are needed to put the country's fiscal house in order, which means that public understanding of and support for the goals of fiscal policy are crucial.
In layman's terms, we can think about multiple time frames without exploding out respective heads. For example, as I recently pointed out, there is much concern about the numerator of the debt/GDP equation while there is no discussion about the denominator. If we take the steps currently to grow the economy -- to provide the requisite capital on which the economy can grow -- than long-term growth should return.