Tuesday, September 20, 2011

America's debt woe is worse than Greece's

Editor's note: Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economist, is a William Fairfield Warren Professor at Boston University, a columnist for Bloomberg and Forbes, and the author of 14 books including "Jimmy Stewart Is Dead" (John Wiley and Sons), "The Healthcare Fix" (MIT Press), and "The Coming Generational Storm" (co-authored with Scott Burns, MIT Press).

Boston, Massachussetts (CNN) -- Our government is utterly broke. There are signs everywhere one looks. Social Security can no longer afford to send us our annual benefit statements. The House can no longer afford its congressional pages. The Pentagon can no longer afford the pension and health care benefits of retired service members. NASA is no longer planning a manned mission to Mars.

We're broke for a reason. We've spent six decades accumulating a huge official debt (U.S. Treasury bills and bonds) and vastly larger unofficial debts to pay for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits to today's and tomorrow's 100 million-plus retirees.

The government's total indebtedness -- its fiscal gap -- now stands at $211 trillion, by my arithmetic. The fiscal gap is the difference, measured in present value, between all projected future spending obligations -- including our huge defense expenditures and massive entitlement programs, as well as making interest and principal payments on the official debt -- and all projected future taxes.

The data underlying this figure come straight from the horse's mouth -- the Congressional Budget Office. The CBO's June 22 Alternative Fiscal Scenario presents nothing less than a Greek tragedy. It's actually worse than the Greek tragedy now playing in Athens. Our fiscal gap is 14 times our GDP. Greece's fiscal gap is 12 times its GDP, according to Professor Bernd Raffelhüschen of the University of Freiburg.

In other words, the U.S. is in worse long-term fiscal shape than Greece. The financial sharks are circling Greece because Greece is small and defenseless, but they'll soon be swimming our way.

To grasp the magnitude of our nation's insolvency, consider what tax hikes or spending cuts are needed to eliminate our fiscal gap. The answer is an immediate and permanent 64% increase in all federal revenues or an immediate and permanent 40% cut in all federal noninterest spending.

Such adjustments go miles beyond anything Congress and the president are considering. No wonder. They are focused on limiting growth in the official debt, while ignoring what's happening to the unofficial debt. To understand the thickness of their blinders, note that the fiscal gap, after inflation, grew by $6 trillion last year, whereas the official debt grew by only $1 trillion. Hence, our leaders are looking at one-sixth of the problem.
Read the rest here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the author hasn't examined the "defense" budget which dwarfs all the programs he claims are bankrupting the U.S.

But then.....that's sacred.