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The budget: Once more to the brink

AMERICA’S fiscal outlook may be grim, but it is less grim than it was. On September 17th the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that the deficit, which hit a peacetime record of 10% of GDP in 2009, would fall below 4% of GDP this year and hit 2.1% by 2015. The federal debt is still on a long-term upward trajectory but that trajectory is lower than the CBO thought it was last year (see chart), thanks to two things. First, the government has changed the way it measures GDP. Second, health-care inflation, long sky-high, has fallen to a modest 1%. That makes the government’s vast obligation to pay for old and poor people’s health care look less onerous.Strangely, the improving economics of the debt have done little for the rotten politics. Both the president and Republican leaders in Congress are anxious to avoid a repeat of their standoff in August 2011, when they brought America close to an unnecessary and catastrophic default by refusing to agree on the terms under which the debt ceiling should be raised.The “debt ceiling” is the legal limit to federal borrowing. Since the Treasury borrows 19 cents of every dollar it spends, Congress has to keep raising the…

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