Americans make many resolutions at the start of a new year. The most common New Year's resolutions are about diet and exercise, but in 2010, many Americans pledged to focus on getting financially fit. The Boston Herald found that more than one-third of those polled were considering resolutions related to their finances. It's too bad the federal government and our elected representatives aren't doing the same.
Even before the start of 2010, Americans have been changing their spending habits. The Washington Post reports that the savings rate was 4.4 percent in October 2009—up from less than one percent in April 2008. Americans are doing what sensible people do in uncertain economic times. They are cutting back on luxuries they don't need, paying down debt, and trying to put away more money to prepare for the future.
Uncle Sam has embraced the opposite strategy. Tax revenue plummeted in 2009, but government spending soared. Some of the spending was necessary, but much of it was pure waste. The $787 billion stimulus bill, for example, was described as necessary to “jump start” the economy, yet at the end of the year, about two-thirds of the money appropriated remained unspent. Why has so much of this spending, approved under the guise of addressing an economic emergency, been put off for so long?
That question is all the more important since—while it's often easy to think otherwise—we are talking about real money. Those hundreds of billions of dollars that the federal government has promised to spend have created real debt that must be paid back by American taxpayers. Politicians need to recognize that their spending trends are unsustainable and that long-term growth depends on getting our fiscal house in order.
Consider the situation we face: the official U.S. debt is $12.3 trillion. That means that if you divide that by the entire U.S. population, each of us owes nearly $40,000. Yet those figures vastly understate the real debt that politicians have accrued on our behalf. Social Security and Medicare have promised our seniors (and future seniors) trillions of dollars in benefits that won't be covered by current taxes. The implicit unfunded liability of the Social Security program is another $17.5 trillion, which more than doubles our national debt. And these figures pale in comparison to Medicare's almost inconceivable unfunded liability, currently estimated at nearly $90 trillion.
As a nation, we are staring at a mountain of debt and unfunded promises well in excess of $100 trillion dollars. In other words, my 8 month old son—not yet walking, much less expressing his political preferences by voting—already has the equivalent of about a $400,000 mortgage (but no house) thanks to decisions made by the government.
Americans may comfort themselves by thinking that the effects of all this overspending won't kick in for decades. Yet the nation is already paying a price. Government borrowing crowds out private borrowing. Today, capital is more scarce because government is borrowing so much, which makes it harder for businesses to grow and entrepreneurs to get the funds they need to start a business. Ultimately, all of this government borrowing will cause interest rates to climb. As a result, more of our tax dollars will go to servicing the debt, individuals will have to pay more to buy a house or a car, and companies will have a harder time borrowing money to grow their business.
And of course, big deficits will increase pressure for policymakers to raise taxes. We can already see this dynamic today. Higher taxes will launch an unfortunate cycle—discouraging work, putting less money in consumers' pockets, making it more difficult for businesses to hire workers and expand—which impedes economic growth.
President Obama has promised that his upcoming budget will make tough choices and help restore fiscal responsibility (of course, he also promised transparent health care negotiations, so we all know how little such promises mean). The Administration has also announced that a bipartisan commission will make debt-reducing recommendations which will receive an up or down vote by Congress. You can count on “a return to fiscal responsibility” to be a big theme in this week's State of the Union address.
If history is any guide, politicians may trim a few spending items slightly, but massive tax increases will remain their primary tactic to close this year’s budget gap. That's the wrong direction for America. The American people know that reducing spending is key to financial security. They've been doing it all year, and it's time for political leaders to follow their lead.