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September 29, 2008

$700 Billion Bailout? You Ain't Seen Nothin'

By

Think $700 billion to bail out Wall Street is expensive? Just wait. The mortgage meltdown is cheap compared with the coming fiscal firestorm fanned by unfunded Social Security and Medicare costs.

Together, these programs hold unfunded obligations totaling $41 trillion - 60 times larger than the proposed Wall Street bailout. And even this understates the difference, because $41 trillion is the current net value of the unfunded obligations over 75 years. The actual cumulative yearly deficits these programs face over the next 75 years are several magnitudes larger than $41 trillion.

Imagine a taxpayer bailout even larger than what's proposed for Wall Street. Now imagine it recurring every year in perpetuity. That's our fiscal future unless we fundamentally reform these unsustainable entitlement programs.

Certainly, there are some differences between the two situations. Unlike entitlement spending, the Wall Street bailout would actually give the government assets it could later sell to recoup much of the costs. On the other hand, by issuing federal debt, the Wall Street bailout would add to the government's explicit obligations - unlike Social Security and Medicare's implicit obligations that, legally, could be cut anytime by Congress.

The entitlement problem is simple to understand. In the 1960s, five workers paid the taxes for each retiree's Social Security and Medicare benefits. Today that ratio is just 3-to-1. The coming retirement of 77 million Baby Boomers will drive that ratio down to 2-to-1 by 2030. That means every two children born this year and who marry in 2030 will have to support themselves, their children - and the Social Security and Medicare benefits of their very own retiree. The cost will be staggering.

While both programs face rising costs due to demographics, the added problem of steeply rising health care costs puts Medicare in even worse shape than Social Security.

Absent reform, paying all promised retiree benefits would require either: A) doubling all tax rates; B) eliminating every other federal program, including defense and education; or C) running massive budget deficits that would eventually collapse the economy. And every year of delay raises the final cost of reform by trillions of dollars.

Yet delay is all we get from Congress. Lawmakers know these program costs are completely unsustainable, but they see reform as expensive and politically risky. And so, they kick the can down the road, putting the future stability of our entire economy at risk.

The impending retirement of 77 million Baby Boomers is not theoretical. It can't be dismissed or wished away. And when the inevitable Social Security and Medicare costs come, taxpayers will demand to know why lawmakers ignored the warnings.

They will discover that in January 2008, Moody's warned that the United States' triple-A credit rating would be reduced within a decade unless Congress reformed these programs.

And Congress just shrugged.

Shortly thereafter, the Medicare trustees warned that payroll taxes and user premiums will soon cover barely half of the program's cost, forcing a record 45 percent of its budget to be subsidized out of general tax revenues. Even though the warning triggered a law requiring an examination of Medicare reforms, Congress again just shrugged.

Next, the Congressional Budget Office projected a 2008 federal budget deficit of $407 billion, driven mostly by escalating Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs. The data showed that these three programs - comprising nearly half of federal spending - are set to push the deficit to nearly $1 trillion over the next decade, and higher thereafter.

Again, Congress just shrugged. And when a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House and Senate offered legislation to create a commission to fix these programs before they bankrupt the nation, congressional leadership refused to allow a vote on it.

Every day that Congress wastes naming post offices and allocating pork projects is a day that the Baby Boomers move closer to retirement, and the eventual costs of an entitlement bailout increase further.

Reform will take time, but lawmakers can begin by publicly disclosing the unfunded obligations of Social Security and Medicare in the federal budget. They can also take these programs off autopilot and place them on a long-term budget.

Today we are grappling with a very real financial crisis. While we cannot go back in time and fix it, we can start acting now to prevent the next, clearly visible crisis. It promises to be 60 times bigger than the Wall Street debacle. Is Congress paying attention?

Brian M. Riedl is the Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs, in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

First Appeared in San Francisco Chronicle

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