The Roman historian Livy famously described the terminal plight of the late Roman Republic: "Nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus" ("We can bear neither our shortcomings nor the remedies for them"). As I reread this phrase in Christian Meier's biography of Julius Caesar this past weekend, I couldn't help thinking of America's current fiscal profligacy -- which has been growing for years at an ever-accelerating rate.
Of course, since last fall's financial/economic crisis, the rate of profligacy has become supercharged. Like the Roman Republic's lament, we think we can't survive without deficit spending -- but we soon won't be able to survive with deficit spending, either.
In 2012, federal debt will be more than $15 trillion. Annual interest probably will be between $1 trillion and $1.7 trillion -- depending on whether long bonds remain at about 3.5 percent or go to recent historic rates (6 to 7 percent). Deficits will average about $1 trillion a year -- $22 trillion by 2019. Yearly interest payments then will be more than $2 trillion. That's the good news.
That assumes the world will continue to buy our Treasury notes at plausible rates. We had a slight foretaste of the future last week, when 10-year U.S. Treasury bond yields shot up 60 basis points on soft demand and a Standard & Poor's warning of a possible ratings downgrade of British bonds. The bond market may well rebel ultimately against our government's excessive borrowing and spending (insufficiently supported by adequate national economic strength).
The "good news" of only $22 trillion in debt supported by purchasable bonds also assumes that our economy will recover this year and that we then will have continued steady economic growth. Of course, the more the government borrows the less will be available for the private sector (the part of the economy that produces things). And the less available borrowing there is for investment and consumption in the economy the slower the economy will grow -- if it grows at all.
But the not-so-good news on top of this astounding and growing indebtedness is that we will have to borrow even vastly more than the current budgets propose. Starting in 2017 (just eight years from now), the Medicare trust fund will be depleted. We then will begin to experience a Medicare revenue shortfall that ultimately will total between $35 trillion and $40 trillion during the following 60 years. Social Security's depletion will begin 20 years later and will have a shortfall of a little less than $10 trillion during the same period.
Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.
In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.