Let's think about the kind of mess that we're in. Federal 2010 Medicare and Medicaid expenditures totaled $800 billion. The projected annual growth of both programs is about 7 percent. Social Security expenditures are more than $700 billion a year. According to the 2009 Social Security and Medicare trustees reports, by 2030, 49 percent of federal revenues will go for Social Security and Medicare payments. The unfunded liability of both programs is already $106 trillion.
But not to worry. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that it's possible to sustain today's level of federal spending and even achieve a balanced budget. All that Congress would have to do is raise the lowest income tax bracket of 10 percent to 25 percent and the middle tax bracket of 25 percent to 66 percent and raise the 35 percent tax bracket to 92 percent. That's a static vision that assumes that people will have no response and they'll work just as hard and send more money to Washington. If Congress did legislate such tax increases, it would be the economic equivalent of committing national hara-kiri.
Professor Daniel Klein, editor of Econ Journal Watch, and Professor Tyler Cowen, general director of the Mercatus Center, both based at George Mason University, organized a symposium to promote a better understanding of the U.S. debt crisis. The symposium's title, "U.S. Sovereign Debt Crisis: Tipping-Point Scenarios and Crash Dynamics" (econjwatch.org), is a strong hint about the seriousness of our nation's plight.
Professor Cowen introduced the symposium pointing out that in 2011, the major crisis was in the eurozone, where Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland dealt with the risk of default. The survival of the eurozone is now seriously doubted. Cowen added: "When it comes to a sovereign debt crisis, it is no longer possible to say 'it can't happen here.' Right now, we are borrowing about 40 cents of every dollar the federal government spends, and the imbalance has no end in sight."
Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, associate professor of economics at San Jose State University, says that a default on Treasury securities appears inevitable. He says that the short-run consequences for the economy will be painful but that the long-run consequences, both political and economic, could be beneficial. That's because an economic collapse is the only way we will come to our senses. That's a tragic statement about the foresight of the American people.
Participant Garrett Jones, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, is a bit more optimistic, seeing default as being less likely. But he argues that "default is still possible, and the GOP offers a uniquely American path to default: an unwillingness to raise taxes."
Dr. Arnold Kling is a member of the Financial Market Working Group at the Mercatus Center and tells us that the "U.S. government has made a set of promises that it cannot keep." He says that the "promises that are most important to change are Social Security and Medicare."
Joseph J. Minarik is senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development. He argues that a "U.S. financial meltdown today is eminently avoidable. The wealthiest nation on earth, despite a painful economic slowdown, maintains the wherewithal to pay its bills. The open question is whether it maintains the will and the wisdom."
Peter J. Wallison holds the Arthur F. Burns chair in financial policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He agrees with Kling that "the most likely source of a U.S. sovereign debt crisis ... is a failure of the U.S. political system to address the growth of the major entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid."
My translation of the symposium's conclusions is that it is by no means preordained that our nation must suffer the same decline as have other great nations of the past — England, France, Spain, Portugal and the Ottoman and Roman empires. All evidence suggests that we will suffer a similar decline because, as Professor Cowen says, "the American electorate has dug in against both major tax increases and major spending cuts."
Walter E. Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.