How do our elected officials sleep at night when the country is on a path to become the biggest spender and borrower of all time? We are drowning in red ink and it appears that no one with any legislative authority seems to recognize there’s no Noah’s Ark to save us from this flood of debt.
The American people know this is a problem. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll found continuing high personal ratings for President Obama, but much lower numbers for specific parts of his agenda. When asked if the administration had developed a clear plan for dealing with the budget deficit, 60 percent said no. Actually, the answer really depends on how one defines “plan.” To many, it appears that the administration’s only plan is to increase the deficit at every turn.
The national debt is currently $11.5 trillion. You can watch it climb steadily upward. Our total obligations are approaching our national GDP. That is, today we would essentially have to stop living for an entire year to retire Uncle Sam’s debt. Not a good option.
Over the last year the federal government has obligated some $13 trillion for bail-outs. Some of the funds were appropriated, some were borrowed, and many were just magically created by the Federal Reserve. (When I think of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, I think of the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain and generating lots of smoke and noise.) Some monies will be paid back by the debtors, while others–such as the tens of billions poured into the auto industry black hole–likely are gone forever. Overall, however, we can count the bail-outs as another lost year of America’s GDP.
Rather than setting priorities and cutting nonessential programs, “our” government is planning a spending orgy that will drive America ever deeper into debt. First, the $787 billion “stimulus” bill was more pork than stimulus; it may have been sold to the public as an essential “jobs” program, but it was mostly an opportunity for many legislators to fund their own pet projects. Amazingly, most of the money–supposedly intended to jump start the economy and move us out of the recession–won’t be spent until next year and beyond, when the economy is likely to have begun its recovery.
Even worse, the Congressional Budget Office believes that the stimulus bill is going to make us poorer. Although in the next few years the federal money will help boost economic activity, by 2015 federal borrowing will crowd out productive private investment, leading to a permanently smaller GDP and lower incomes. That means Americans will have less money even as the government seeks to pay off all of the extra debt. Consider that outlays this year will be about $4 trillion, nearly half of which will be borrowed. The roughly $2 trillion deficit is four times the previous record.
President Obama introduced his 2010 budget as “a new era responsibility,” but sadly the opposite is true. The President proposed spending $3.6 trillion next year, with a deficit of $1.2 trillion. And undoubtedly these numbers under-estimate actual spending. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been losing more money. The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation is in trouble. The Federal Housing Administration needs a cash infusion. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is going to require more federal money to keep closing banks. Our obligations continue to climb.
The administration figured a cumulative deficit of $7.1 trillion for 2010-2019. But the Congressional Budget Office says that the red ink will run $9.3 trillion. At least. That’s a staggering $4.9 trillion increase over the so-called baseline budget.
Then there is health care spending. The president wants to reform American medicine, a daunting task at any time. But when the U.S. is drowning in tidal wave of debt?
The Congressional Budget Office figures that Sen. Ted Kennedy’s health care bill would cost an extra trillion dollars over the coming decade–and that’s just the cost of the incomplete version, without some of the inevitable, expensive add-ons. The CBO figured that Sen. Max Baucus’ version would run $1.6 trillion over the same period. But these numbers almost certainly are far too low. The initial estimates for most every social welfare program were laughably inaccurate. Compare what Congress said Medicare and Social Security would cost to what they actually cost, and you will wonder why they bother estimating at all. In the case of the Kennedy bill, the consulting firm HSI Network projects that many more people will take advance of federal subsidies for individual purchase of health insurance, running the cost up to $4 trillion over the coming decade.
Finally, there are the true budget disasters, Medicare and Social Security. The latest report of the system’s trustees estimates an unfunded liability of $107 trillion. Paying that off means eight years of doing nothing else, not even eating. My back-of-the-envelope estimate is projected red ink of $147.6 trillion. No wonder the American people don’t believe the administration has a deficit-reduction strategy. Its policy is the exact opposite.
At a time of extraordinary economic challenges, Washington policymakers must set priorities. Deficit reduction is not the only important objective. But it is one of the most important objectives. It’s time for fiscal responsibility to be more than just a campaign promise and to put that ethic into action.
Examiner columnist Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice. She is the author of Women’s Progress: How Women Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before, and is an MSNBC political analyst.