WASHINGTON — Something strange is happening in Washington. We are slowly dismantling the federal government, even as its spending is growing larger. The paradox is that governmental competence is being systematically degraded while the government's size, as measured by its budget, is increasing. We are spending more and getting less, and — unless present trends are reversed — this will continue for years. It threatens the end of government as we know it.
The cause is no mystery. An aging population and higher health spending automatically increase budget outlays, which induce the president and Congress to curb spending on almost everything else, from defense to food stamps. Over the next decade, all the government's projected program growth stems from Social Security and health care, including the Affordable Care Act. By 2024, everything else will represent only 7.4 percent of national income (gross domestic product), the lowest share since at least 1940, says Douglas Elmendorf, head of the Congressional Budget Office.
This is the central budget story, and it's largely missed — or ignored — by political leaders, the media, political scientists and the public. The welfare state is taking over government. It's strangling government's ability to respond to other national problems and priorities, because the constituencies for welfare benefits, led by Social Security's 57 million, are more numerous and powerful than their competitors for federal support. Politicians of both parties are loath to challenge these large, expectant and generally sympathetic groups.
The United States, of course, is not the only advanced society grappling with aging, but we are extreme in our stubborn denial of the obvious. The Pew Research Center recently polled people in 21 countries about whether aging is a problem. The United States ranked 19th in its unconcern, ahead of only Indonesia and Egypt, whose populations are young. Only 26 percent of Americans thought aging was a problem. The share was 87 percent in Japan, 55 percent in Germany and 45 percent in France.
Why the differences? Pew speculates that these other societies are already older and are aging faster. In Japan, the 65-and-over population is projected to be 37 percent of the total in 2050, up from 23 percent in 2010. For Germany, the increase is from 2010's 21 percent to 33 percent. These societies face huge adjustments. By contrast, the U.S. shift is from 13 percent in 2010 to 21 percent in 2050. But that's still a major change, with most of it occurring by 2025. Americans don't worry about aging, mainly because their leaders studiously avoid the subject.
Choices are made on the sly with little public understanding. The Budget Control Act of 2011 imposed across-the-board limits on most non-Social Security and non-health-care spending; the 2013 "sequester" deepened cuts. To offset an explosion of spending on new retirees (in the next decade, Social Security beneficiaries grow by a third), the remedy is to chop the rest. Consider:
— The military is being weakened. As a share of national income, defense spending is projected to fall by 40 percent from 2010 to 2024. For example, the Air Force has discussed retiring all 300 of its A-10 jets, a close-in ground support fighter, for a savings of $3.7 billion. The move would mean that "more people will get hurt and die" in combat, one general told The Wall Street Journal.
— The National Institutes of Health reports that since 2003 its budget has declined 22 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. The cuts squeeze research for Alzheimer's, AIDS, cancer and heart disease — among others — and make it harder for younger scientists to get grants.
— Chief Justice John Roberts warns that cuts in the federal courts' $7 billion budget threaten delays in trials and decisions. Since 1997, the system's workforce has shrunk 14 percent, despite more civil filings (up 2 percent), criminal defendants charged (up 34 percent) and people on probation (up 45 percent).
These examples aren't isolated. The Washington Post reports that the number of immigration judges has fallen nearly 10 percent, making deportation hearings more perfunctory. Government's most powerful agency isn't even on the organizational chart. It's AARP, the chief lobbying group for retirees, which triumphs over the Pentagon and other Cabinet departments. A better balance between retirees and everything else needs to be found.
But no one is looking. Budget debates and the media focus on deficits and debt ceilings. This makes people seem engaged when they are actually evading explicit choices of what programs to cut and taxes to raise. Both liberals and conservatives are complicit in this charade, but liberals are more so because their unwillingness to discuss Social Security and Medicare benefits candidly is the crux of the budget stalemate. This refusal is rich in irony: The pro-government party in rhetoric has become an anti-government party in practice.