Dangers of Debt: How our Fiscal Outlook Threatens the Economy

May 11, 2018

The United States now stands alone as the only advanced economy in the world with a debt-to-GDP ratio that is projected to grow over the next five years. Recent tax and spending legislation has made our debt outlook considerably worse. High and rising debt matters because it diminishes our economic future. As interest rates rise and we return to trillion-dollar deficits as early as next year, we will face increased budgetary pressures, reduced public and private investments, less flexibility to deal with future crises, and fewer economic opportunities for Americans. This panel brought together voices from the private sector and academia to analyze the threats posed by America’s rapidly rising national debt and discussed fiscal solutions to put us on a better path.

This interview with Simon Johnson, Deanna Mulligan and Steven Rattner was conducted by The Wall Street Journal's Greg Ip as part of the 2018 Fiscal Summit.

Simon Johnson

Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship, MIT Sloan School of Managements

Simon Johnson is the Ronald A. Kurtz (1954) Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management, where he is also head of the Global Economics and Management group and chair of the Sloan Fellows MBA Program Committee. He co-founded and currently leads the popular Global Entrepreneurship Lab (G-Lab) course—over the past 16 years, MBA students in G-Lab have worked on more than 500 projects with start-up companies around the world.

He also works closely with Joi Ito, head of MIT’s Media Lab, on the Digital Currency Initiative (DCI). Specifically, Johnson supervises research projects related to blockchain technology, and teaches a course (with Michael Casey and Brian Forde) on this fast developing business sector. Johnson is not an investor in bitcoin or any bitcoin-related startups, but he works closely with MIT students and others who want to build better companies.

Johnson is a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., a co-founder of BaselineScenario.com, and a member since inception of the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee. In July 2014, Johnson joined the Financial Research Advisory Committee of the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Financial Research (OFR); he chairs the recently formed Global Vulnerabilities Working Group.

Johnson holds a BA in economics and politics from the University of Oxford, an MA in economics from the University of Manchester, and a PhD in economics from MIT.

Deanna Mulligan

President and Chief Executive Officer, The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America

Deanna M. Mulligan is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian). She is also a member of Guardian’s board of directors.

Active across the industry and in the community, Ms. Mulligan is a Board member of Vanguard, the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI), the New York Department of Financial Services State Insurance Advisory Board, the Partnership for New York City, the Economic Club of New York, the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), and the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. Ms. Mulligan was appointed to, and served on, the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans from 2014 to 2015, and was Chair of the Board of the ACLI from 2015 to 2016. She is currently a member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council, and served as Director on the Board of Arch Capital, a publicly-held Bermuda-based re-insurer.

In 2017, Fortune named her one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business” and Crain’s New York Business recognized her as one of the “50 Most Powerful Women in New York” for the fourth time since 2010.

Ms. Mulligan graduated from the University of Nebraska with high distinction and holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Steven Rattner

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Willett Advisors LLC

Steven Rattner is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Willett Advisors LLC, which manages the personal and philanthropic investment assets of Michael R. Bloomberg. In addition, he is a contributing writer for the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and an economic analyst for MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Previously, Mr. Rattner served as Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury and led the Obama Administration’s successful effort to restructure the automobile industry, which he chronicled in his book, Overhaul: An Insider’s Account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry. Until February 2009, Mr. Rattner was Managing Principal of Quadrangle Group LLC, a private investment firm that under his leadership, had more than $6 billion of assets under management. Before forming Quadrangle in 2000, Mr. Rattner was with Lazard Frères & Co., where he served as Deputy Chairman and Deputy Chief Executive Officer. Mr. Rattner joined Lazard Frères in 1989 as a General Partner from Morgan Stanley, where he was a managing director. Before beginning his investment banking career in 1982 with Lehman Brothers, Mr. Rattner was employed by The New York Times for nearly nine years, principally as an economic correspondent in New York, Washington, and London. Mr. Rattner has served as a board member or trustee of a number of public and philanthropic organizations including the Educational Broadcasting Corporation (Chairman), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brown University (Fellow), Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City (Chairman), Brookings Institution, and the New America Foundation. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Mr. Rattner graduated in 1974 from Brown University with honors in economics and was awarded the Harvey Baker Fellowship. Mr. Rattner is married to Maureen White, who is a Senior Fellow at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and they have four children.

Greg Ip

Chief Economics Correspondent, The Wall Street Journal

Greg Ip is chief economics commentator for The Wall Street Journal. He writes about U.S. and global economic developments and policy in the weekly Capital Account column and on Real Time Economics, the Wall Street Journal’s economics blog. He was previously U.S. economics editor for The Economist. Greg comments regularly on television and radio, including CNBC, National Public Radio, and the PBS Newshour. Greg has won or shared in several prizes for journalism. He is the author of The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World (Wiley, 2010) and Foolproof: Why Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe, (Little, Brown, 2015). A native of Canada, Mr. Ip received a bachelor’s degree in economics and journalism from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.


National Debt Clock

See the latest numbers and learn more about the causes of our high and rising debt.


This series of infographics helps put some of today's most pressing fiscal debates in context.