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The government's precarious fiscal affairs
San Francisco Chronicle


July 24, 2008

WASHINGTON -- As the Bush administration proposes backstopping mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with a $300 billion line of credit and Congress contemplates another economic stimulus, the question is who will bail out the government?

"People seem to think the government has money," said former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. "The government doesn't have any money."

A rare consensus has developed across the political spectrum that the government's own fiscal affairs are precarious, with an astonishing $53 trillion in long-term liabilities, according to the Government Accountability Office.

To put that number in human terms, the debt has reached $455,000 per U.S. household. As that debt grows, the United States increasingly relies on foreigners, including China and Middle East oil producers, for financing.

"The factors that contributed to our mortgage-based subprime crisis exist with regard to our federal government's finances," said Walker, now head of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a group established to raise alarms about the nation's budget. "The difference is that the magnitude of the federal government's financial situation is at least 25 times greater."

This year's presidential election coincides with the first retirements of the 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964. The first of this baby boom generation may now collect Social Security. In three years, they will join Medicare, the giant health care program whose finances are commonly described as out of control. Medicare accounts for the bulk of the nation's long-term liabilities.

The presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, have not addressed what the aging of the baby boom generation means for the federal government. Their brief forays -- Obama's suggestions to raise the payroll tax on high-income earners to buttress Social Security and McCain's description of Social Security's financing as a disgrace -- have been met with furious attacks.

Both promise to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on new tax cuts and spending programs. Their health care proposals concentrate more on expanding access than controlling the soaring costs that are driving the federal budget problems and squeezing workers and businesses.

"Health care costs are just amazing," said John Shoven, director of Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research. Total health care costs now consume 16 percent of the economy and are headed quickly toward 30 percent, Shoven said. "Social Security is a big problem, but it's dwarfed by health care. Even the housing problem is dwarfed by health care."

Just the built-in rise in spending on programs for the elderly will cost about 25 percent of workers' payrolls over the next generation, said Richard Jackson, director of the Global Aging Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Robert Greenstein, director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, agreed that "the nation faces large, persistent, long-term deficits that ultimately risk damage to the economy. We agree that policymakers have to make tough choices soon."

There is consensus, too, on what needs to be done: Cut spending and raise taxes. A bigger problem is how to contain health care costs, but some form of rationing is necessary, experts said.

The only real disagreement is whether the government's fiscal condition will lead to a financial meltdown, or whether the U.S. economy is strong enough to right itself without a sudden loss of confidence and a flight of foreign capital.

"People on Wall Street think I'm Dr. Doom & Gloom," said Kent Smetters, an economist at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a former Bush Treasury official. "I believe we could have a financial crisis like we've seen in South America or Asia. It could easily happen, and under current policy will happen in the United States. People say, 'Gee, give me a date.' Obviously, that's impossible, but the longer we wait, the higher the probability. Could it happen in the next decade? Absolutely."

Alice Rivlin, budget chief in the Clinton administration, discounts the possibility.

"We're a much stronger economy than Argentina," Rivlin said. The government "can handle borrowing in the range that would be necessary in a recession," she said. "What we can't handle is the cumulative long-run obligation."

Financial markets are often fixated on the short-run, and the government's finances are far from transparent. Unlike corporations, the government is not required to state its long-term obligations. Crises of confidence, like today's banking problems, strike suddenly when a tipping point is reached and investors decide to flee.

The government's fiscal problems are "like termites in the house," said Jackson. "You don't notice it until foundations are eroded."


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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