Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fiscal Responsibility

This article talks about the dire economics facing this country in just a few short years.

I sure wish somebody would listen.

GAO chief warns economic disaster looms

By MATT CRENSON, AP National Writer
Calculations by Boston University economist Lawrence Kotlikoff indicate that closing those gaps — $8 trillion for Social Security, many times that for Medicare — and paying off the existing deficit would require either an immediate doubling of personal and corporate income taxes, a two-thirds cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits, or some combination of the two.

Why is America so fiscally unprepared for the next century? Like many of its citizens, the United States has spent the last few years racking up debt instead of saving for the future. Foreign lenders — primarily the central banks of China, Japan and other big U.S. trading partners — have been eager to lend the government money at low interest rates, making the current $8.5-trillion deficit about as painful as a big balance on a zero-percent credit card.

In her part of the fiscal wake-up tour presentation, Rogers tries to explain why that's a bad thing. For one thing, even when rates are low a bigger deficit means a greater portion of each tax dollar goes to interest payments rather than useful programs. And because foreigners now hold so much of the federal government's debt, those interest payments increasingly go overseas rather than to U.S. investors.

More serious is the possibility that foreign lenders might lose their enthusiasm for lending money to the United States. Because treasury bills are sold at auction, that would mean paying higher interest rates in the future. And it wouldn't just be the government's problem. All interest rates would rise, making mortgages, car payments and student loans costlier, too.

A modest rise in interest rates wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing, Rogers said. America's consumers have as much of a borrowing problem as their government does, so higher rates could moderate overconsumption and encourage consumer saving. But a big jump in interest rates could cause economic catastrophe. Some economists even predict the government would resort to printing money to pay off its debt, a risky strategy that could lead to runaway inflation.

Macroeconomic meltdown is probably preventable, says Anjan Thakor, a professor of finance at Washington University in St. Louis. But to keep it at bay, he said, the government is essentially going to have to renegotiate some of the promises it has made to its citizens, probably by some combination of tax increases and benefit cuts.

But there's no way to avoid what Rogers considers the worst result of racking up a big deficit — the outrage of making our children and grandchildren repay the debts of their elders.

"It's an unfair burden for future generations," she says.

You'd think young people would be riled up over this issue, since they're the ones who will foot the bill when they're out in the working world. But students take more interest in issues like the Iraq war and gay marriage than the federal government's finances, says Emma Vernon, a member of the University of Texas Young Democrats.

"It's not something that can fire people up," she says.

The current political climate doesn't help. Washington tends to keep its fiscal house in better order when one party controls Congress and the other is in the White House, says Sawhill.

"It's kind of a paradoxical result. Your commonsense logic would tell you if one party is in control of everything they should be able to take action," Sawhill says.

But the last six years of Republican rule have produced tax cuts, record spending increases and a Medicare prescription drug plan that has been widely criticized as fiscally unsound. When
President Clinton faced a Republican Congress during the 1990s, spending limits and other legislative tools helped produce a surplus.

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