The Politics of Avoidance – Robert Samuelson
To understand our predicament, glance at the table below (which I've used before). It shows federal taxes and spending as a share of GDP for 2006 (the last "normal" year before the slump) and projections for 2020 and 2035. The Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid forecasts -- reflecting current benefits -- come from the Congressional Budget Office. Other spending categories are held constant as a share of GDP. There's no room for big emergencies or new programs. Though crude, the resulting numbers capture the mounting pressures.
It's scary. From 2006 to 2035, federal spending goes from 20 percent of GDP to almost 29 percent. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid (including Obamacare) account for all the increase. The reasons: More elderly people and climbing health costs. In 2035, the 65-plus population will be 93 percent larger than in 2010. Paying for bigger government would require a tax increase of about 50 percent. If we want to avoid a tax increase -- while honoring existing Social Security and health care benefits -- we'd have to cut all other programs by about 80 percent. (And these figures are likely optimistic, because interest on government debt is assumed to remain low.)
The problem is not reducing the deficit. It is controlling spending in a way that seems socially just, economically sensible and politically tolerable. If we are honest -- neither party has been -- it means asking how much we allow benefits for the old to burden the young through higher taxes, lower public services, slower economic growth and weakened national security.
Any genuine debate must be wrenching because government has promised more than it can realistically deliver, and lower benefits or higher taxes will leave many feeling (justifiably) mistreated. No one would be happy. Liberals would have to accept sizable benefit cuts; conservatives, tax increases.
Recognizing this logic, America's leaders have averted their eyes and held their tongues. President Obama continues this inglorious avoidance. His Obamacare actually made matters worse by increasing the least controllable spending.