That’s the most important takeaway of a new report, one that maybe should get a little attention this campaign season.
The report comes from Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan think tank that, as the name suggests, focuses heavily on whether the government has enough resources to meet its financial obligations.
Earlier this year, the committee published a thorough review of the Clinton and Trump agendas ― with a particular focus on how each would affect the deficit (the difference between what the government spends and takes in) and the debt (the total amount of money that the government owes).
On Thursday, the committee published a new version, taking into account proposals that Clinton and Trump had introduced since the last analysis. The verdict was pretty similar to the last one.
Once again, the committee found, Trump’s proposed tax cut would pour red ink all over the federal ledger, while Clinton painstakingly identified enough new taxes to offset nearly the entire cost of the programs she would launch.
To be clear, government borrowing isn’t always a bad thing. Economists argue among themselves over how much debt the federal government can carry, and for what purposes it might be worthwhile.
Today might actually be an ideal time for government to incur higher deficits, at least for the short term, because low interest rates make borrowing unusually cheap ― and a burst of spending for infrastructure could pay off in the long run.
But, for the most part, that’s not the kind of borrowing Trump has in mind.
The big item on the Republican nominee’s agenda is that tax cut. It’s gone through no less than three incarnations now, and the latest version is actually smaller than the previous one. But the basic shape is the same, with corporations and the wealthy benefitting disproportionately.
And according to the committee’s projection, it would permanently change the budgetary baseline, substantially increasing the shortfall between what the government takes in and what it sends out ― to the tune of $4.5 trillion over the next 10 years.
Throw in the rest of Trump’s agenda, including a boost in defense spending and an even bigger cut to Medicaid, and ― according to the report ― you get a total impact of $5.3 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years.
The story with Clinton’s agenda is quite different. In fact, it may surprise cynics who assume all politicians are equally unserious when they say they would pay for new initiatives.
The Democratic presidential nominee has called for an array of new spending programs, some of them quite expensive. These include efforts to help people pay out-of-pocket medical bills and generous new aid for families paying college tuition.
But Clinton has also said she will offset the cost of those programs with new taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans ― a promise, the committee found, she has largely kept with her proposals. All told, the committee found, Clinton’s policies would add $200 billion to the federal debt over 10 years. In the context of campaign promises, which are never that precise, that’s a pittance ― and maybe even a rounding error.
The estimate may be slightly generous to Clinton, as it assumes her promise of capping child care costs at 10 percent of family income would cost just $150 billion over 10 years. Projections for similar proposals from independent think tanks suggest such a program, fully implemented, would cost much more.
But even allowing for that, the impact of Clinton’s agenda on the deficit would be far less than Trump’s ― and would ultimately depend on whether Clinton could identify other sources of revenue to pay for it.
For a better sense of how the Trump and Clinton agendas compare, you can think about debt in the way most economists do ― by looking at it as a percentage of gross domestic product, or GDP. If Clinton’s policies became law, the committee found, federal debt after 10 years would be 86 percent of GDP ― pretty much what the experts project as of now. If Trump’s policies became law, by contrast, federal debt after 10 years would land at around 105 percent.
A very real danger of pushing debt levels higher indefinitely is that it could slow the economy ― or, at the very least, create a financial shortfall that would eventually force deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security, programs Trump has insisted he would defend.
As the committee points out, neither Clinton nor Trump would reduce the government’s debt burden over time, which is something many and probably most mainstream economists would say is necessary ― although how quickly to do that, and with what kinds of policies, is an ongoing subject of debate.
But Clinton wouldn’t make a tough situation tougher. Trump would.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.