America’s Coming Transfer of Wealth

Does it seem as if some lawmakers have the attention span of a toddler? Several years ago, concerns about the debt and overspending were all the rage. These worries have dissipated almost entirely as deficit levels have gone down from their sky-high summit in 2009. And just like that, lawmakers have gone back to overlooking our long-term fiscal situation and the unsustainable path the nation is on.

Veronique De Rugy1

Case in point: the latest projections from the Congressional Budget Office. According to the CBO’s annual Long-Term Budget Outlook, if current laws were to remain unchanged, government spending as a share of gross domestic product would reach 22.2 percent in fiscal 2025, up from 20.5 percent today. By then, even under a very rosy GDP growth scenario, the debt would amount to 78 percent of the economy. To put this number in perspective, the debt-to-GDP ratio was 35 percent in 2007. In 2040, the debt could reach a whopping 103 percent of GDP. Spending on interest alone would consume 4.3 percent of GDP, a dramatic increase above the current 1.3 percent. Putting that in dollar terms, interest on the debt would jump from $235 billion to over $2.2 trillion. That’s a lot of money.

The deterioration comes fully from the explosion of major health care programs, Social Security and escalating interest on debt costs. More precisely, Medicare, Medicaid, Affordable Care Act subsidies and Social Security are the drivers of our future debt. Spending on these programs alone could reach 11.8 percent of GDP in fiscal 2025 and 14.2 percent of GDP in 2040, up from 10.1 percent today.

Because spending on entitlements will continue to outpace all other spending for years to come, they will consume a large and increasing share of the budget. In layman’s terms, it means that the future of our government will be mostly to spend money on older Americans for their retirement and health care. Despite federal revenues slightly increasing during the coming decade, the government could still run cumulative deficits of $7.4 trillion over that 10-year period, according to CBO forecasts.

Of course, all of the policy uncertainty in Washington, not to mention the CBO’s required current law projections, will not yield perfectly accurate forecasts. If lawmakers were to make changes to current law — say, repeal the sequester cuts or scheduled tax increases or fail to implement some of the “savings” in the president’s health care law — then deficits and debt would be significantly higher than the amounts reported under the current base line.

For example, under the alternative scenario, the CBO projects that debt would reach 86 percent of GDP in fiscal 2025, and spending would be 22.9 percent of GDP. In 2040, debt as a share of GDP would be an unimaginable 156 percent. And of course, the more debt you have the more interest you pay. Interest on the debt would equal 6.3 percent of GDP, or $3.2 trillion.

Now, if you are not freaked out enough, the CBO also looks at the negative impact on the economy of accumulating such levels of debt. In that scenario, higher debt means lower growth, and that increases our debt to 175 percent of GDP.

And who do you think is going to shoulder this lower growth and higher debt? The younger generations will. Without any changes to our enormous entitlement programs, we are about to witness the most massive transfer of wealth from the relatively poor and young to the relatively rich and old in society. It is time for members of Congress to stop acting like toddlers and refocus on changing the path we are on.

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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