The reason: State governments set aside cash to invest in pensions, but they typically assume that their investments will rise 8 percent a year indefinitely. They haven't been getting such high returns and are not likely to do so in the future. But they are under legal obligations, which courts won't allow them to escape, to pay the pensions. Retirees get paid off before bondholders, which means that states are going to have to pay more interest when they borrow.
Back in the 1990s, Clinton adviser James Carville said that if he was reincarnated he would like to come back as the bond market -- "because you can intimidate everybody." Governments, like all organizations, need to borrow routinely. But investors won't lend unless they think they will be paid back. And they will demand higher interest rates as their loans become riskier.
On Sunday, 219 House Democrats, soothed by their leaders' gaming of the CBO scoring process, voted in reckless disregard of what the bond market has been telling them. Some may share Speaker Nancy Pelosi's optimism that the government's looming fiscal disaster can be avoided by imposing a value-added tax -- in effect, a national sales tax.
But, as we know from the experience of high-tax Western Europe and relatively low-tax America over the last three decades, higher taxes tend to retard economic growth. Lower economic growth means less revenue for government than in CBO projections. Less revenue means more borrowing -- and at some point lenders are going to call a halt.
Barack Obama's project of transforming the United States into something like Western Europe is, according to the CBO, raising the national debt burden on the economy to World War II levels. I see train wrecks ahead -- as the bond market forces huge spending cuts or tax increases first on states and then on the federal government. It will make what happened in the House Sunday look pretty.