When Pretending Fails to Hide Bankruptcy: Laurence Kotlikoff

Our country is bankrupt. It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years. It’s bankrupt today.

Want proof? Look at President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget. It showed a massive fiscal gap over the next 75 years, the closure of which requires immediate tax increases, spending cuts, or some combination totaling 8 percent of gross domestic product. To put 8 percent of GDP in perspective, this year’s employee and employer payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare will amount to just 5 percent of GDP.

Actually, the picture is much worse. Nothing in economics says we should look out just 75 years when considering the present-value difference between future spending and future taxes. Over the full long-term, we need an extra 12 percent, not 8 percent, of GDP annually.

Seventy-five years seems like a long enough time to plan. It’s not. Had the Greenspan Commission, which “fixed” Social Security back in 1983, focused on the true long term we wouldn’t be sitting here now with Social Security 26 percent underfunded. The Social Security trustees, at least, have learned a lesson. The 26 percent figure is based on their infinite horizon fiscal- gap calculation.

But the real reason we can’t look out just 75 years is that the government’s cash flows (the difference between its annual taxes and non-interest spending) over any period of time, including the next 75 years, aren’t well defined. This reflects economics’ labeling problem. If you use different words to describe the receipts taken in and paid out each year by the government, you produce entirely different cash flows and an entirely different fiscal gap measured over any finite horizon.

Matter of Language

It’s only the value of the infinite horizon fiscal gap that is unaffected by the choice of labels of language. Take this year’s payroll tax contributions. Let’s call these transfers from workers to Uncle Sam “borrowing” by the government, rather than “payroll taxes,” since the money will be paid back as future benefits. If the future payback isn’t in full (equal to principal plus interest), we can call the difference a “retirement tax.” Presto! With this change of words, our 2011 deficit of about 10 percent of GDP is boosted another five points to 15 percent.

With one set of words, taxes are higher now and lower later. With the other set of words, the opposite is true. But neither set of labels makes more economic sense than the other or changes what the government takes, on balance, from any person or business in any given year.

This is no surprise. The math of economics rules out an absolute measure of the deficit, just like the math of physics rules out an absolute measure of time.

Bottom Line

The bottom line, then, is that we need to look at the infinite-horizon fiscal gap not just for Social Security, but for the entire federal government. That analysis, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s long-term alternative fiscal scenario, shows an unfathomable fiscal gap of $202 trillion. And covering this gap requires coming up with the aforementioned 12 percent of GDP, forever.

If this gives you the willies, there’s a ready narcotic -- the president’s 2012 budget, which shows that most of our long- term fiscal problem has miraculously disappeared; the fiscal gap isn’t 12 percent of annual GDP. Nor is it 8 percent. It’s now 1.8 percent.

This fantastic improvement in our finances is due, we’re told, primarily to the Independent Payment Advisory Board. This board, to be established in 2014 (after the next election, of course) is charged with recommending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid providers when their costs grow too fast.

Repealing Cuts

We’ve had laws mandating such cuts for years, and they are routinely repealed. Indeed, President Obama signed the latest such repeal last June. But rather than laugh out loud at this cost-control mechanism, the Medicare trustees, three-quarters of whom were appointed by the president, assume in their 2010 report that these cuts will be made -- to the dollar. And the 2012 budget cites the report’s fictional forecast as its authoritative source.

No one takes the 2010 Medicare trustee report’s long-run projections seriously, least of all Richard Foster, Medicare’s chief actuary. Foster added this statement to the end of the report: “The financial projections shown in this report for Medicare do not represent a reasonable expectation…in either the short range…or the long range.”

This isn’t the first administration to conceal our long- term fiscal problem. Back in 1993, Alice Rivlin, then deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, asked me and economists Alan Auerbach and Jagadeesh Gokhale to prepare a long-term fiscal gap/generational accounting for inclusion in President Bill Clinton’s 1994 budget.

Politics Triumphs

We worked for months on the analysis, but two days before the budget’s release, the study was excised from the budget. We were shocked, but, in retrospect, the politics are clear. The Clinton administration wanted to claim it was fiscally prudent and the study, which showed unofficial debt growing at enormous rates, showed the opposite.

The fiscal gap’s next near appearance in a president’s budget was in 2003. Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill commissioned Gokhale and Kent Smetters to do the study. It showed a massive $45 trillion fiscal gap -- not a great basis for pushing tax cuts or introducing the prescription-drug benefit for seniors, known as Medicare Part D. O’Neill was ousted on Dec. 6, 2002, and a couple of days later the fiscal-gap study was discarded.

I’m not sure whether censoring the fiscal gap is more dishonorable than fudging it. What I do know is that we can’t assume our problems away and that I expected far better of this president when I voted for him.

Laurence Kotlikoff is professor of economics at Boston University, president of Economic Security Planning Inc. and author of Jimmy Stewart Is Dead.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writers of this column: Laurence Kotlikoff at kotlikoff@bu.edu;

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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