Friday, July 29, 2011

Fixing the debt ceiling is the easy part

At this point, who knows what will happen over the negotiations for raising the debt ceiling. But that is only a small part of the huge problems we are facing. As this Business Week article, "Why the Debt Crisis Is Even Worse Than You Think," points out, the debt ceiling concerns money that we've already spent. Our true problems lie in the money that we have obligated ourselves to spend - money that we will not have. If we can't reach a decision over a trillion or two now, what are we going to do when we face a debt of $20 trillion and climbing?
That’s why the posturing about whether and how Congress should increase the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 has been a hollow exercise. Failure to increase the borrowing limit would harm American prestige and the global financial system. But that’s nothing compared with the real threats to the U.S.’s long-term economic health, which will begin to strike with full force toward the end of this decade: Sharply rising per-capita health-care spending, coupled with the graying of the populace; a generation of workers turning into an outsize generation of beneficiaries. Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Michael J. Boskin, who was President George H.W. Bush’s chief economic adviser, says: “The word ‘unsustainable’ doesn’t convey the problem enough, in my opinion.”

Even the $4 trillion “grand bargain” on debt reduction hammered out by President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio)—a deal that collapsed nearly as quickly as it came together—would not have gotten the U.S. where it needs to be. A June analysis by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that keeping the U.S.’s ratio of debt to gross domestic product at current levels until the year 2085 (to avoid scaring off investors) would require spending cuts, tax hikes, or a combination of both equal to 8.3 percent of GDP each year for the next 75 years, vs. the most likely (i.e. “alternative”) scenario. That translates to $15 trillion over the next decade—or more than three times what Obama and Boehner were considering.

You start to see why, absent signs of a serious commitment to deficit reduction, the rating services are warning they may downgrade the federal government’s triple-A rating even if Congress does meet the Aug. 2 deadline.
And all these politicians in Washington know this. It's not like it's a secret. But the Democrats and some Republicans like to close their eyes and pretend that this looming debt crisis can be pushed off behind a curtain and ignored, at least until they're out of office and living on their nice government pensions. The politicians and interest groups for senior citizens will demagogue any proposed change to Social Security and Medicare, but those entitlements will eat up future budgets so that nothing will be left over for discretionary spending. Until serious leaders ignore the temptation to demagogue on entitlements, we won't have any control over future debts. No wonder the ratings agencies are warning of a downgrade. We deserve to be downgraded for the future liabilities we've taken on.

The WSJ gives us a little walk through history to explain how we got to the position we're at today.
Social Security's fiscal trouble began in earnest in 1972 with bills that increased benefits immediately by 20%, added an annual cost of living adjustment, and created a benefit escalator requiring payments to rise with wages, not inflation. This and other tweaks by Democrat Wilbur Mills added trillions of dollars to the program's unfunded liabilities. Believe it or not, these 1972 amendments were added to a debt-ceiling bill.

None of these benefit expansions were subject to annual budget review and thus they grew by automatic pilot. They are sometimes called "mandatory spending" because Congress is required by law to make payments to those who meet eligibility standards, regardless of other spending needs or tax revenues.

According to the most recent government data, today some 50.5 million Americans are on Medicaid, 46.5 million are on Medicare, 52 million on Social Security, five million on SSI, 7.5 million on unemployment insurance, and 44.6 million on food stamps and other nutrition programs. Some 24 million get the earned-income tax credit, a cash income supplement.

By 2010 such payments to individuals were 66% of the federal budget, up from 28% in 1965. (See the second chart.) We now spend $2.1 trillion a year on these redistribution programs, and the 75 million baby boomers are only starting to retire.
And there is plenty of blame to spread around. But you can't just blame Reagan and Bush and think that covers how we got to where we are today. Such partisan myopia ignores the history of the last 30 years.
Many on the left still blame Ronald Reagan, but the debt increase in the 1980s financed a robust economic expansion and victory in the Cold War. Debt held by the public at the end of the Reagan years was much lower as a share of GDP (41% in 1988 and still only 40.3% in 2008) compared to the estimated 72% in fiscal 2011. That Cold War victory made possible the peace dividend that allowed Bill Clinton to balance the budget in the 1990s by cutting defense spending to 3% of GDP from nearly 6% in 1988.

Mr. Bush and Republicans did prove after 9/11 that the Washington urge to spend and borrow is bipartisan. Republicans launched a Medicare drug benefit, record outlays on education, the most expensive transportation bill in history, and home ownership aid that contributed to the housing bubble. The GOP's blunder was refusing to cut domestic spending to finance the war on terrorism. Guns and butter blowouts never last.

Then came Mr. Obama, arguably the most spendthrift president in history. He inherited a recession and responded by blowing up the U.S. balance sheet. Spending as a share of GDP in the last three years is higher than at any time since 1946. In three years the debt has increased by more than $4 trillion thanks to stimulus, cash for clunkers, mortgage modification programs, 99 weeks of jobless benefits, record expansions in Medicaid, and more.

The forecast is for $8 trillion to $10 trillion more in red ink through 2021. Mr. Obama hinted in a press conference earlier this month that if it weren't for Republicans, he'd want another stimulus. Scary thought: None of this includes the ObamaCare entitlement that will place 30 million more Americans on government health rolls.

This is the road to fiscal perdition. The looming debt downgrade only confirms what everyone knows: Congress has made so many promises to so many Americans that there is no conceivable way those promises can be kept. Tax rates might have to rise to 60%, 70%, even 80% to raise the revenues to finance these promises, but that would be economically ruinous.

Yet Mr. Obama and most Democrats still oppose any serious reform of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. This insistence on no reform reinforces the notion that our entitlement state is too big to afford but also too big to change politically. This is how a AAA country becomes AA, the first step on the march to Greece.
If you thought this conflict over raising the debt ceiling was dismaying and unedifying, just wait until the fecal matter really starts getting flung around.

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