Periodic Reminder: Our National Debt Reckoning is Coming, and the Problem is Real and Getting Worse

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Posted: Jun 26, 2019 1:45 PM
Periodic Reminder: Our National Debt Reckoning is Coming, and the Problem is Real and Getting Worse

As we await two consecutive nights of Fantasy Spending Olympics during the Democratic presidential debates in Miami, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has published its latest forecast and assessment of the nation's fiscal health.  The picture painted by CBO's official data is bleak, and it's bleaker still against the backdrop of bipartisan inaction in the face of the growing problem.  Some Republicans have taken the challenge seriously, only to see their ranks marginalized in the Trump era.  Others are comfortable kicking the can, especially with the economy in good shape at the moment.  Democrats, meanwhile, make occasional noises about deficits and debt (usually in the context of opposing tax relief or defense spending) -- but they still overwhelmingly support profligate spending, to the point of fiscal insanity.  This predilection is only growing more cartoonish and brazen.  And with that in place, try not to avert your eyes from the following charts:  


Look at the toll the interest on the existing debt is projected wreak, well beyond the darker bars of annual primary deficits.  Now look at the huge splash of (literal) red ink in this chart, demonstrating the giant hole the unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security will blow in future budgets (pay special attention to the gulp-inducing "rosy scenario" disclaimer, as well as the relatively minuscule impact of defense and war spending):


These two graphics are also useful. The first puts the lie to facile, misleading, and context-free deficit-related arguments against the 2017 tax law from people who oppose lifting a finger to reform and save the two named entitlement programs.  Also, before you complain about the term "entitlements" because people paid into those programs, please remember that Medicare beneficiaries' pay in is massively eclipsed by promised benefits.  The next graph demonstrates the total lack of sustainability of Medicare and Social Security's endless red ink, absent necessary changes: 


Writing at the Washington Examiner, consistent and principled fiscal hawk Philip Klein 'bottom lines' CBO's findings: 

In the coming decades, the already historically high federal debt will enter unprecedented levels...The United States has had many periods in history in which there have been significant short-term spikes in the debt, generally during war or economic duress. What we've never seen before, however, is debt as high for as long a time as what's expected in the coming decades...Under an alternate, less optimistic, set of assumptions, debt could reach 219 percent of gross domestic product — or more than two years of U.S. economic output... Absent action, Congressional Budget Office warns, the "debt path would dampen economic output over time" and "rising interest costs associated with that debt would increase interest payments to foreign debt holders and thus reduce the income of U.S. households by increasing amounts." Left unchanged, Congressional Budget Office writes, the debt path would "pose significant risks to the fiscal and economic outlook." Though, for now, financial markets continue to lend to the U.S. at low interest rates, the rising debt will, "Increase the risk of a fiscal crisis -- that is, a situation in which the interest rate on federal debt rises abruptly because investors have lost confidence in the U.S. government’s fiscal position."

If you're among the younger generation of Americans who will likely experience the detonation of this debt bomb, it's forgivable to weep softly over this information.  The federal government shows virtually zero signs of having any capacity or willingness to make needed choices to steady the ship.  Some people are betting the moment of truth will never really come.  Many of those people have immediate self-interest in mind, and expect to be gone by the time the cliff arrives.  For young people, voting for politicians who will hasten the disaster by making alluring but ludicrous promises along the path to oblivion is a real temptation, but it's not a solution.  Uncle Sam is already on the fast track to whiffing on tens of trillions of promised future benefits.  Adding many trillions more is quite insane, but that's precisely what is being proposed.  "Be very afraid," Klein writes.  I'd add, "and vote accordingly," an admonition that applies to partisans from both sides.  Speaking of fears, though, I worry that public concern about this looming crisis will not meaningfully materialize until it's far too late to avoid draconian and painful fixes.  The warning signs are everywhere.  Yet most politicians -- and voters -- seem content to whistle past the graveyard for as long as possible.