Most economists think this process — called deleveraging — will just have to proceed, perhaps for another two to five years, and there’s very little government can do about it. One view is that the frugality displayed by households today is the counterbalance to the high rates of spending and borrowing done in previous decades.

Government Spending and Debt: It’s been the norm in recent decades for federal spending to exceed revenues and, therefore, for the national debt to increase. In fact, in only eight years since World War II has the federal government not needed to borrow to pay its bills.

But the spending and borrowing accelerated in recent years. Indeed, since 2007, almost $4 trillion has been added to the national debt. However, most of this was due to the recession. Federal government tax revenues always fall and spending always rises during recessions. Tax revenues decline because businesses and households are hurting, and spending rises because programs that help unemployed and poor households always expand during bad times.

Yet once recessions end, the government red ink narrows. Indeed, the Congressional Budget Office projects the annual red ink (the budget deficit) will shrink from $1.4 trillion this fiscal year to $900 billion next year and to $750 billion the year after. This happens because tax revenues improve when the economy grows, and special anti-recessionary spending, like the stimulus plan, ends.

But we’ll still have a government spending and debt problem, just as we’ve had one for most of the last 50 years. However, the cause won’t be the recession; instead, it will come from demographic and other forces causing some government programs to expand — specifically the big three of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The problem this creates for elected officials is that these are popular programs, which help the elderly and the poor. Changing them will be extremely difficult.

Taxes: One recommendation heard during the political campaigns is that reducing tax rates is a way of stimulating the economy. Economists have two qualifiers to offer for this plan. While reducing tax rates may motivate more private spending and job creation, if the reduced taxes mean lower spending on public goods valued by businesses — infrastructure would be a good example — then economic growth may stall.

But some claim reducing tax rates ignites so much growth that tax revenues actually rise. Economists have thoroughly studied this claim and have concluded it only happens if tax rates are at a high level, generally above 60 percent. Otherwise, tax rate cuts reduce public revenue.

The election is over and now governing begins. Will tackling and solving our economic problems be easy? You decide!

EDITOR’S NOTE —Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Professor and North Carolina Cooperative Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics of North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy. The Department of Communication Services provides his You Decide column every two weeks. Previous columns are available at