The U.S. government is about to exceed its statutory debt limit again before 2013. But that actually underestimates the size of the fiscal time bomb that this country is facing. If one considers the unfunded liabilities of programs such as Medicare and Social Security, the true national debt could run as high as $119.5 trillion.
Moreover, to focus solely on debt is to treat a symptom rather than the underlying disease. We face a debt crisis not because taxes are too low but because government is too big. If there is no change to current policies, by 2050 federal government spending will exceed 42 percent of GDP.
Adding in state and local spending, government at all levels will consume nearly 60 percent of everything produced in this country. Whether financed through debt or taxes, government that large would be a crushing burden to our economy and our liberties.
Driving this massive increase in the size and cost of government are so-called "entitlement programs," in particular Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Indeed, by 2050, those three programs alone will consume 18.4 percent of GDP. If one assumes that revenues return to and stay at their traditional 18 percent of GDP, then those three programs alone will consume all federal revenues. Therefore any serious attempt to balance the federal budget and reduce our growing national debt must include a plan to reform entitlements.
It may well be politically convenient to continue ducking entitlement reform. But doing so will condemn our children and our grandchildren to a world of mounting debt and higher taxes.
Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.
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