David Post: What’s driving the deficit?
Does the government spend too much? Probably.
Are taxes too low? Probably.
Is not raising the debt ceiling a ěcalamityî as Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Fed says? Absolutely.
Is there an easy or quick fix? Absolutely not.
Tax receipts cover 60 percent of government spending, but a 40 percent gap cannot be closed in 10 days. Few households and businesses could do that. Nor can the federal government. None of the ětalking headsî have asked Congress if it will take a 40 percent pay cut and pay 40 percent of their health care.
When households and businesses face deficits of that magnitude, they go bankrupt. They lose most of what they own. Their creditors donít get paid. Their credit ratings drop. Their living standards decline. Their interest rates rise, if they can borrow anything. Recovery from bad credit takes years. Itís not a pretty picture.
Hereís the big picture showing federal government income and expenses last year and 10 years ago. (Figures represent billions of dollars.)
$ 2,025 $2,163
As percent of GDP:
Stop there, and the problem seems to be an easy one. Over the past 10 years, tax cuts and the Great Recession have reduced revenues while two wars and the Medicare drug program have increased spending. No one is discussing those issues. Instead, the screaming is about ěno new taxesî and out of control spending.
Every mechanic knows to look under the hood to find whatís making the noise. And there it is: Weíre getting older and old is expensive.
In the past 10 years, Social Security has almost doubled, from $400 billion to $700 billion; federal health care costs have more than doubled, from $390 billion to more than $920 billion, and continue to rise much faster than inflation.
But wait, itís going to get worse. Here come the baby boomers, and they are a tsunami. Today, 40 million people in the United States are over age 65, including 19 million over 75. Behind them stand 79 million people between 45 and 65, so about 79 million are going to replace 19 million in the retirement pool over the next 20 years.
Medicare covers the health care of those over 65, which cost $500 billion last year. Medicare tax receipts covered only $65 billion, or 13 percent, of those costs. Another $400 billion in federal health care costs were spent on the military, veterans, federal employees and the poor, with no tax source other than the taxpayer.
In 2010, total personal income tax receipts were about $900 billion, enough to cover the governmentís health care tab, but leaving nothing for other government functions. No military, no highways, no courts, no environment, no national parks. No Congress! Next year, taxes may or may not increase, depending upon the economy, but retirement and health care costs will undoubtedly increase. That is a bad formula.
Imagine this Jeopardy question: If the retirement population doubles or triples over the next 30 years, how do we pay for Social Security and retiree health care? Only a true champion can answer that question.
Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, proposed a plan. First, eliminate Medicare in 10 years, give seniors an $8,000 voucher and let them buy their own policy. (Iím 62 and canít buy a policy for that amount now. Can you? Maybe costs will go down over the next three years.) Second, give the states block grants and let them figure out how to deal with rising Medicaid costs. (In other words, let states raise taxes or decline care for the poor.)
Public opinion is divided on whether to raise taxes, but otherwise, public opinion is very clear: Reduce spending, donít reduce Social Security, and save Medicare. Figure out how to do that, and Washington needs you.
The debate should be addressing the implications of an aging population. Instead, Washington is playing political roulette with the publicís future.
Washington needs more kindergarten teachers and coaches, those special giants in our lives who taught us to share, to be fair, to give a little and get a little, to be nice, and that we either win or lose as a team, not as individuals. How much we forget as we get older!
David Post is a co-owner of Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.