A crisis is a crisis, but also an opportunity.
The Journal is using the current crisis to launch a full-on attack on entitlements, blaming the New Deal, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for all of America’s fiscal issues. Not the wars. Not the tax cuts. Just entitlements.
President Obama will deserve much of the blame for the spending blowout of his first two years (see the nearby chart). But the origins of this downgrade go back decades, and so this is a good time to review the policies that brought us to this sad chapter and $14.3 trillion of debt.
FDR began the entitlement era with the New Deal and Social Security, but for decades it remained relatively limited. Spending fell dramatically after the end of World War II and the U.S. debt burden fell rapidly from 100% of GDP. That changed in the mid-1960s with LBJ’s Great Society and the dawn of the health-care state. Medicare and Medicaid were launched in 1965 with fairy tale estimates of future costs.
Medicare, the program for the elderly, was supposed to cost $12 billion by 1990 but instead spent $110 billion. The costs of Medicaid, the program for the poor, have exploded as politicians like California Democrat Henry Waxman expanded eligibility and coverage. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Medicaid cost $4 billion in 1966, $41 billion in 1986 and $243 billion last year. Rather than bending the cost curve down, the government as third-party payer led to a medical price spiral.
LBJ launched other welfare programs—public housing, food stamps and many more—that have also grown over time. Last year, the panoply of welfare programs spent about $20,000 for every man, woman and child in poverty, according to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation.
Social Security’s fiscal trouble began in earnest in 1972 with bills that increased benefits immediately by 20%, added an annual cost of living adjustment, and created a benefit escalator requiring payments to rise with wages, not inflation. This and other tweaks by Democrat Wilbur Mills added trillions of dollars to the program’s unfunded liabilities. Believe it or not, these 1972 amendments were added to a debt-ceiling bill.
None of these benefit expansions were subject to annual budget review and thus they grew by automatic pilot. They are sometimes called “mandatory spending” because Congress is required by law to make payments to those who meet eligibility standards, regardless of other spending needs or tax revenues.
According to the most recent government data, today some 50.5 million Americans are on Medicaid, 46.5 million are on Medicare, 52 million on Social Security, five million on SSI, 7.5 million on unemployment insurance, and 44.6 million on food stamps and other nutrition programs. Some 24 million get the earned-income tax credit, a cash income supplement.
By 2010 such payments to individuals were 66% of the federal budget, up from 28% in 1965. (See the second chart.) We now spend $2.1 trillion a year on these redistribution programs, and the 75 million baby boomers are only starting to retire.
We suspect that in the 1960s as now—with ObamaCare—liberals knew they had created fiscal time-bombs. They simply assumed that taxes would keep rising to pay for it all, as they have in Europe.
On Monday night Mr. Obama blamed President George W. Bush’s “two wars” for the debt buildup. But national defense spending was 7.4% of GDP and 42.8% of outlays in 1965, and only 4.8% of GDP and 20.1% of federal outlays in 2010. Defense has not caused the debt crisis.
Many on the left still blame Ronald Reagan, but the debt increase in the 1980s financed a robust economic expansion and victory in the Cold War. Debt held by the public at the end of the Reagan years was much lower as a share of GDP (41% in 1988 and still only 40.3% in 2008) compared to the estimated 72% in fiscal 2011. That Cold War victory made possible the peace dividend that allowed Bill Clinton to balance the budget in the 1990s by cutting defense spending to 3% of GDP from nearly 6% in 1988. …
But the current deficits aren’t the fault of the New Deal or the Great Society. The current economic crisis, and our massive deficits, are the result of much more recent policy. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:
Some commentators blame major legislation adopted in 2008-2010 — the stimulus bill and other recovery measures and the financial rescues — for today’s record deficits. Yet those costs pale next to other policies enacted since 2001 that have swollen the deficit. Those other policies may be less conspicuous now, because many were enacted some years ago and they have long since been absorbed into CBO’s and other organizations’ budget projections.
Just two policies dating from the Bush Administration — tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — accounted for over $500 billion of the deficit in 2009 and will account for $7 trillion in deficits in 2009 through 2019, including the associated debt-service costs.  By 2019, we estimate that these two policies will account for almost half — nearly $10 trillion — of the $20 trillion in debt that will be owed under current policies. (The Medicare prescription drug benefit enacted in 2003 also will substantially increase deficits and debt, but we are unable to quantify these impacts due to data limitations.) These impacts easily dwarf the stimulus and financial rescues, which will account for less than $2 trillion (less than 10 percent) of the debt at that time. Furthermore, unlike those temporary costs, these inherited policies (especially the tax cuts and the drug benefit) do not fade away as the economy recovers.
Without the economic downturn and the fiscal policies of the previous Administration, the budget would be roughly in balance over the next decade. That would have put the nation on a much sounder footing to address the demographic challenges and the cost pressures in health care that darken the long-run fiscal outlook.
In other words, despite the “welfare state” that has existed for the better part of 80 years, we would nonetheless have had a balanced budget today if not for the Bush tax cuts. All of that horrid help for the poor and the sick and the elderly — the bains of conservatives’ existence — would not have stood in the way of those balanced budgets. All that awful debt, which also bought a stock market that trends above 12,000 on a bad day and an economy that continues to produce even anemic growth when by all rights, after the Bush recession in 2007, should still be in negative territory, failed to stop the balanced budgets at the end of the Clinton era, and wouldn’t have stopped balanced budgets had the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 never been enacted.
But nice try, Wall Street Journal.