We economists have a scenario that we call "current policy plus Bush tax cuts." It is made up of (i) the laws currently in force in the United States of America, plus (ii) the assumption that the defense, veterans, and other spending currently appropriated year-by-year by the congress remains the same as a share of GDP, plus (iii) the assumption that the tax breaks like the R&D credit and the regular pruning-back of the Alternative Minimum Tax that are voted for year by year by overwhelming congressional majorities continue to be enacted year-by-year, plus (iv) the assumption that the tax cuts George W. Bush proposed in 2001 and 2003 but made time-limited and set to expire early next decade are renewed. This "current policy plus Bush tax cuts" scenario has the federal government taxing about 20% of GDP over the next seventy-five years. It has the federal government forecast to spend 28% of GDP on average over the next seventy-five years. This is the fiscal gap.
A number of policies could be enacted to eliminate this fiscal gap. Simply doing nothing and letting the Bush tax cuts expire as current law requires them to do would reduce the fiscal gap from 8 percent to 6 percent of GDP. Raising Social Security taxes or cutting back future Social Security benefits by the about 1/7 needed to get the Social Security system back into projected 75-year balance would further reduce the fiscal gap from 6 percent of GDP to 5 percent of GDP. Returning military spending to its late-1990s share of GDP--not fighting wars in Iraq, et cetera--would reduce the fiscal gap from 5% to 3.5% of GDP. And eliminating "excess" cost growth in the government health care programs Medicare and Medicaid--allowing Medicare and Medicaid spending per eligible beneficiary to grow only as fast as the rate of growth of income in the economy as a whole--would bring the federal government into projected balance.
I believe that when we Americans look deep into ourselves and ask us what we want our government--because it is our government: it is our agent to do what we want with our money just as the guy in Florida we hire to keep grandma's one bedroom condo in repair is our agent--to do, we conclude the following:
- We want to let the Bush tax cuts expire.
- We want to close the 75-year Social Security gap, half by raising the limit on earnings taxed by Social Security so that the upper middle class and the rich pay more for Social Security and half by reducing the rate of growth of benefits at retirement.
- We want to stop sending our soldiers--the best-trained and best-equipped high tech armed forces in the world--abroad to be military police in countries riven by sectarian conflict where they do not speak the language--and so return defense spending to its late-1990s share of GDP.
- We want to reduce but not eliminate the "excess" cost growth in Medicare and Medicaid: we believe our doctors, nurses, and druggists will learn how to do wonderful things over the next two generations, and we do not want those wonderful things in the way of medicine applied only to the rich but to the poor and old as well.
- Whether or not we decide to do (1) through (4) above, we want to raise taxes to cover whatever of the long-run fiscal gap remains, and so bring the federal budget back into balance over the long run.
Note that (5) is not optional. As the late Milton Friedman liked to put it: to spend is to tax. If the government buys things, it must get the money to buy them from somewhere. It can get the money from three places. It can tax. It can borrow--but then the borrowing has to be repaid with interest, and the more is borrowed the higher the interest and the worse the value the taxpayers ultimately get for their money when they are taxed to repay the borrowing. Or it can print the money and so inflate the currency--but that too is a tax, and an especially unfair, painful, and destructive one, as lots and lots of people victimized by inflation find their wealth doesn't buy what it used to and what they expected.
We can argue over whether (1) through (4) is what we want to do--that is what politics is about. But whatever we decide to do with (1) through (4), (5) is not optional--not, that is, if we want to continue to have a rich country in the long run. And the politicians who have told you that (5) is optional from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush to Robert Dole to George W. Bush and now John McCain are not your friends, or America's friends.