8.02.2011

Entitlement state time bombs ... the road to fiscal perdition

A short history of the entitlement state

Excerpts:

FDR began the entitlement era with the New Deal and Social Security, but for decades it remained relatively limited.

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... in the mid-1960s with LBJ's Great Society and the dawn of the health-care state. Medicare and Medicaid were launched in 1965 with fairy tale estimates of future costs.

Medicare, the program for the elderly, was supposed to cost $12 billion by 1990 but instead spent $110 billion.

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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.

We suspect that in the 1960s as now—with ObamaCare—liberals knew they had created fiscal time-bombs. They simply assumed that taxes would keep rising to pay for it all, as they have in Europe.

On Monday night Mr. Obama blamed President George W. Bush's "two wars" for the debt buildup. But national defense spending was 7.4% of GDP and 42.8% of outlays in 1965, and only 4.8% of GDP and 20.1% of federal outlays in 2010. Defense has not caused the debt crisis.

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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.

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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.

Comment:  Every young thinking adult should read this. At 62 I may well be dead (and in heaven) before this time bomb goes off.

1 comment:

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