If you’d like to have your New Year’s Eve thoroughly ruined, I’d suggest taking a look today at Mortimer Zuckerman’s piece over at USNews.com, “Brace for an Avalanche of Unfunded Debt.”
It’s so depressing because it’s true. The federal government keeps its books not in ways that most clearly reveal the true financial picture, but in ways designed, quite deliberately, to obscure that picture. This is for the short-term benefit of politicians and nothing else, the country be damned. And, as Zuckerman notes, unless something is done about this, and soon, that is exactly what the country will be.
As he points out, the country is incurring future financial obligations at the rate of $8 trillion a year. That exceeds the total taxable income of everyone earning more than $66,198 a year and all corporate profits. Even a liberal should be able to understand that if future obligations in entitlements are rising at $8 trillion and the total taxable income of the middle class and up, plus corporations, is $7 trillion, “getting the rich to pay their fair share” won’t do the trick.
The good news, of course, is that these future obligations are not like the national debt, which is at $16 trillion and rising fast. The debt is an inescapable obligation because we pledged the “full faith and credit of the United States” when we borrowed the money. The only alternatives don’t bear thinking about: repudiating the debt or inflating it away.
As Zuckerman points out, it costs $359 billion to service the debt at today’s very low interest rates. Should interest rates begin to rise, either because of returning prosperity or a loss of faith by the market, the cost of servicing the debt will increase $150 billion for every percentage point rise in interest rates. We’re currently paying about 2.2 percent on the debt. Greece is paying over 16 percent to borrow money. As they say: you do the math.
Unlike the debt, future entitlement obligations are obligations only because current law says they are, and laws can be changed. For instance, if we were to, 1) change the formula by which cost-of-living increases in Social Security payments are calculated so that it didn’t overstate inflation as the formula does now, and 2) gradually increase the age of eligibility to reflect ever-increasing life expectancy, Social Security would become solvent for the foreseeable future.
The annual cost-of-living adjustment is designed to keep recipients’ purchasing power intact, but it currently gives them, in effect, a raise. Is it really too much to ask of recipients that they get what’s due them, not more? Likewise, would raising the age of eligibility one month for every year future recipients are now under the age of 55 incur unbearable political opposition? Not if politicians, starting with the president, do their jobs and, you know, lead, explaining the truth and showing the way out of trouble. I have a news bulletin for the political class: the American people are neither stupid nor selfish. Tell them the truth and they will accept it.
But to do that—to tell the American people the truth about the financial situation of the country—requires that politicians surrender the power to keep the books in self-serving ways. The country needs just what corporations have: a set of accounting rules they are obliged to follow that reveal the truth, not conceal it, and an independent authority to certify the books as honest and complete, including future obligations. (The Congressional Budget Office, which “scores” legislation, is nonpartisan, but it is by no means independent. It is a creature of Congress and has no choice but to do Congress’s bidding, which is political protection first, the truth a long-way second.)
There will be no long-term solution to the impending financial disaster until the government keeps honest books. The sooner this fact is on the country’s political radar and becomes part of the discussion, the better. There is not a lot of time left.