02 Dec 2010

Deficit Decline and Fall

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Mortimer B. Zuckerman identifies the real significance of the enormously expanded Obama-era deficit. It is not only capable of putting a dent in Americans’ consuming lifestyles. It promises to change permanently American capabilities and America’s role in the world. Some of us believe the permanent transformation of the United States into another militarily impotent welfare state would fulfill both the domestic and foreign policy goals of the radical left’s agenda.

The majority of Western governments are running fiscal deficits of 10 percent or more relative to GDP, but it is increasingly clear that there will be no quick fixes, that big government and fiscal deficits will not bring us back to the status quo ante. Indeed, the tidal wave of red ink has meant that the leverage-led or debt-led growth model is dead.

Developed countries will be forced to deal with their debt on every level, from the personal to the corporate to the sovereign. Being able to borrow may have made people feel richer, but having to repay the debt is certainly making them feel poorer, particularly since the unfunded liabilities that many governments face from aging populations will have to be paid for by a shrinking band of workers. (Ecoutez, mes amis!)

Demography is destiny. As a result, there is a burgeoning consensus that we are witnessing an inevitable rise of the East and a decline of the West.

The prognosis for America is especially discouraging. We have relied too heavily on surplus savings from abroad on top of running massive current account deficits. Until recent times, we ran deficits of this order only when we were engaged in a titanic war; otherwise we sought to achieve budget balances over a complete business cycle. But now we are running annual deficits of $1.4 trillion, about 10 percent of the total economy. We have compounded the deficits we accumulated over the last decade, so they now reach 61 percent of GDP. Only once before has the ratio of federal debt to GDP come in above 60 percent. That was after World War II. And our federal debt ratio today doesn’t even take into account Social Security and Medicare. Total liabilities and unfunded promises for Medicare and Social Security were about $62 trillion at the end of the last fiscal year, tripling from the year 2000, according to the calculations of former Comptroller General David Walker. Sixty-two trillion dollars is $200,000 per person and $500,000-plus for the average household. As Walker put it, the problem with these trust funds is “you can’t trust them [and] they’re not funded.” Therefore, he asserts, we ought to count them as a liability, which would bring the debt-to-GDP ratio to 91 percent.

The present model of global growth had served excess Western consumption with inexpensive products from the East. The result is plain to see: The West has excessive debt, while China has excessive capacity and inadequate consumption, as well as high levels of savings and our debt.

The deficits we face are a dagger pointing at the heart of the American economy. They threaten that the United States will evolve into another aging welfare state, where fiscal expenditures shift from defense to social welfare, and America’s power in the world will shrink. It has clearly happened in Western Europe, which can no longer defend itself but relies on the United States.

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One Feedback on "Deficit Decline and Fall"

SDD

The decline of the West relative to Asia may be an inevitable part of the future, but, if so, only foolish leaders would look at that prospect and continue the same strategies appropriate to a previous era. Microsoft is no longer than high growth tech star that it was twenty years ago. Google is today, and somebody else will be tomorrow. But Microsoft is still a highly profitable company precisely because they are not spending their resources with the same abandon that they were twenty years ago.
If the US is to continue to prosper, it must either restore the conditions that made it a high growth juggernaut (a tax and regulatory environment favorable to business and entrepreneurship) or it must stop acting as if those resources simply fall from the sky every year and it is but our solemn task to decide how to spread them around.



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