Saturday, March 19, 2011

The debt we owe

I'm not a person who is normally inclined to pessimism, but I've recently become pretty cynical about the seriousness of our elected officials when it comes to trying to actually live within our means as a country. Everybody now knows that we Americans owe the world more money than has ever been owed to anybody. What is unclear is how we will ever begin to pay it back absent serious reforms. If this is a household budget, the current negotiations between the House Republicans and the Senate Democrats and Obama amount to deciding whether to eat out at Steak and Shake or the Olive Garden rather than whether to stop eating out altogether. Here's the critical numbers that put it all in perspective:
  • Total unfunded state pension obligations: $3 Trillion, or 1/5 of our current GDP.
  • Total unfunded federal obligations (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid): $88.6 Trillion, according to the Government Accountability Office, the federal agency tasked with tracking such things.
  • Total world GDP: $66.1 Trillion (pre-crash 2008).
So the wealth of the entire world, added together, is not enough to pay off the debt we owe. The fact that not all of this debt is due today is irrelevant. It will come due, and the fact that we owe $22 Trillion more than the entire world possesses will be highly relevant to our ability to ever pay it. The time for entitlement reform is now, before the world wakes us to reality, and comes to the conclusion that, whatever our intentions, there is no plausible scenario in which our debt is repaid, and the situation in America make the convulsions wracking the Greek economy look like a Sunday School picnic.

The question is: Will the Obama Democrats summon the courage to do what is necessary to dismantle, or at least substantially re-structure, the programs the have spent most of the last 80 years building and expanding before we become Argentina, a once-prosperous nation which is now poor?

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