Several of the Fairfax newspapers ran this op ed by Laurence Kotlikoff. The linked version is superior to the local version because of the valuable IMF hyperlinks it contains. The stalling of the US recovery is no news to anyone who watches international equity markets. The bloodbath over the last few days reflects these fears but also perhaps a growing sense that doomsayers such as Kotlikoff might be right – the US is broke and, given its current economic sickneeses, there are no low pain options.
The notion that dealing with the massive public debt can occur after addressing shorter term economic weaknesses seems increasingly unrealistic.
I excerpt (the bold is mine):
“…….closing the U.S. fiscal gap, from the revenue side, requires, roughly speaking, an immediate and permanent doubling of our personal-income, corporate and federal taxes as well as the payroll levy set down in the Federal Insurance Contribution Act.
Such a tax hike would leave the U.S. running a surplus equal to 5% of GDP this year, rather than a 9% deficit. So the IMF is really saying the U.S. needs to run a huge surplus now and for many years to come to pay for the spending that is scheduled. It’s also saying the longer the country waits to make tough fiscal adjustments, the more painful they will be.
Is the IMF bonkers?
No. It has done its homework. So has the Congressional Budget Office whose Long-Term Budget Outlook, released in June, shows an even larger problem.
Based on the CBO’s data, I calculate a fiscal gap of $202 trillion, which is more than 15 times the official debt. This gargantuan discrepancy between our “official” debt and our actual net indebtedness isn’t surprising. It reflects what economists call the labeling problem. Congress has been very careful over the years to label most of its liabilities “unofficial” to keep them off the books and far in the future.
For example, our Social Security FICA contributions are called taxes and our future Social Security benefits are called transfer payments. The government could equally well have labeled our contributions “loans” and called our future benefits “repayment of these loans less an old age tax,” with the old age tax making up for any difference between the benefits promised and principal plus interest on the contributions.
The fiscal gap isn’t affected by fiscal labeling. It’s the only theoretically correct measure of our long-run fiscal condition because it considers all spending, no matter how labeled, and incorporates long-term and short-term policy.
$4 Trillion Bill
How can the fiscal gap be so enormous?
Simple. We have 78 million baby boomers who, when fully retired, will collect benefits from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that, on average, exceed per-capita GDP. The annual costs of these entitlements will total about $4 trillion in today’s dollars. Yes, our economy will be bigger in 20 years, but not big enough to handle this size load year after year.
This is what happens when you run a massive Ponzi scheme for six decades straight, taking ever larger resources from the young and giving them to the old while promising the young their eventual turn at passing the generational buck.
Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under US President Richard Nixon, coined an oft-repeated phrase: “Something that can’t go on, will stop.” True enough. Uncle Sam’s Ponzi scheme will stop. But it will stop too late.
And it will stop in a very nasty manner. The first possibility is massive benefit cuts visited on the baby boomers in retirement. The second is astronomical tax increases that leave the young with little incentive to work and save. And the third is the government simply printing vast quantities of money to cover its bills.
Worse Than Greece
Most likely we will see a combination of all three responses with dramatic increases in poverty, tax, interest rates and consumer prices. This is an awful, downhill road to follow, but it’s the one we are on. And bond traders will kick us miles down our road once they wake up and realize the U.S. is in worse fiscal shape than Greece.
Some doctrinaire Keynesian economists would say any stimulus over the next few years won’t affect our ability to deal with deficits in the long run.
This is wrong as a simple matter of arithmetic. The fiscal gap is the government’s credit-card bill and each year’s 14% of GDP is the interest on that bill. If it doesn’t pay this year’s interest, it will be added to the balance.
Demand-siders say forgoing this year’s 14% fiscal tightening, and spending even more, will pay for itself, in present value, by expanding the economy and tax revenue.
My reaction? Get real, or go hang out with equally deluded supply-siders. Our country is broke and can no longer afford no- pain, all-gain “solutions.””
Kotlikoffs ‘unpleasant arithmetic’ is rejected by James Galbraith in this Economist article. The substance of his argument seems to be that the US can always inflate away its debt. If this occurs there will be a bout of world-wide inflation and geared-up debt holders generally will be advantaged.