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The Great Deficit Scare

The Federal Budget, Trade, and Social Security

By Robert Eisner

American politics often seems to be focused on three deficits, real and potential: the federal budget, the Social Security Trust Fund, and the trade balance. Robert Eisner, past president of the American Economic Association, explains why this is an unhealthy situation as well as a source of much misunderstanding. He argues that simply looking at the raw numbers creates misimpressions about the country’s real economic situation, as well as provoking potentially damaging ideas for “remedies.” Eisner points out that Social Security Trust Fund deficits can be “fixed” by simple changes in accounting procedures or funding requirements. And America’s trade deficit will not bankrupt the country—servicing America’s foreign obligations will take only a tiny share of its national wealth. As with any other loan, Eisner reminds us, it is what deficits are spent on that counts: tax cuts or investments in education, research, or the nation’s capital stock. Eisner maintains that the economic dragons the American nation should be attempting to slay do not entail mythically measured budget or current account deficits. The real economic troubles that America faces are those of poverty, income inequality, and a failure to invest in human capital and public infrastructure.

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