Over the course of the 20th century, America built its welfare state. It was, by and large, a great achievement, expanding opportunity and security for millions. Unfortunately, as the population aged and health care costs surged, it became unaffordable.
Public debt as a percentage of gross domestic product was around 38 percent in 1965. It is around 74 percent now. Debt could approach a ruinous 90 percent of GDP in a decade and a cataclysmic 247 percent of GDP 30 years from now, according to the Congressional Budget Office and JPMorgan.
By 2025, entitlement spending and debt payments are projected to suck up all federal revenue. Obligations to the elderly are already squeezing programs for the young and the needy. Those obligations will lead to gigantic living standard declines for future generations. According to the International Monetary Fund, meeting America’s long-term obligations will require an immediate and permanent 35 percent increase in all taxes and a 35 percent cut in all benefits.
So except for a few rabid debt-deniers, almost everybody agrees we have to do something fundamental to preserve these programs. The problem is that politicians have never found a politically possible way to begin. Every time they tried to reduce debt, they ended up borrowing more and making everything worse.
So Congress and President Barack Obama set up the “fiscal cliff,” an artificial disaster scenario that would force them to do the right thing. Obviously, the fiscal cliff negotiations were not going to lead toward the deep structural reforms that will eventually be needed. But they could have begun the reform process.
They could have shown the world that the two parties can work together to avert the eventual calamity. They could have produced a balanced program that would have combined spending cuts and targeted tax increases. They could have reduced Medicare spending on the rich to free up more money for young families.
Obama and House Speaker John Boehner both earnestly wanted to achieve these things. But the deal we are heading toward is discouraging. Yes, the deal does raise $600 billion in revenue over 10 years from a tiny sliver of the population (compared with the $8 trillion in new debt likely to be accrued over that time).
But the proposal is not a balance of taxes and spending cuts. It doesn’t involve a single hard decision. It does little to control spending. It abandons all of the entitlement reform ideas that have been thrown around. It locks in low tax rates on families making less than around $450,000; it is simply impossible to avert catastrophe unless tax increases go below that line.
Far from laying the groundwork for future cooperation, it sentences the country to another few years of budget trench warfare. There will be a fight over drastic spending cuts known as sequestration, then over the debt limit and on and on.
The White House envisions a series of stages bringing us closer to fiscal sustainability. I hope that’s right. But if Congress couldn’t make a single tough decision under these circumstances, why should we think it’ll make any further down the road? More likely, there will just be more squabbling and brinkmanship, more posturing and punting, which would not only poison future budget talks but also prospects for immigration reform, tax reform, gun control and many other projects.
Whom should we blame for this? Again, we should not blame Obama and Boehner. In their different ways, they and a number of other people in the Congress are trying to find a politically palatable way to deal with these hard issues. They got what conditions allowed.
Ultimately, we should blame the American voters. The average Medicare couple pays $109,000 into the program and gets $343,000 in benefits out, according to the Urban Institute. This is $234,000 in free money. Many voters have decided they like spending a lot on themselves and pushing costs onto their children and grandchildren. They have decided they like borrowing up to $1 trillion a year for tax credits, disability payments, defense contracts and the rest. They have found that the original Keynesian rationale for these deficits provides a perfect cover for permanent deficit-living. They have made it clear that they will destroy any politician who tries to stop them from cost-shifting in this way.
Most members of Congress are responding efficiently to the popular will. A large number of reactionary Democrats reject any measure to touch Medicare or other entitlement programs. A large number of impotent Republicans talk about reducing the debt, but are incapable of forging a deal that balances tax increases with spending cuts.
The events of the past few weeks demonstrate that these political pressures overwhelm the few realists looking for a more ambitious bargain. The country either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the burdens we are placing on our children. No coalition of leaders has successfully confronted the voters and made them heedful of the ruin they are bringing upon the nation.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.MORE IN Election Letters
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