The nation’s economic future is still in limbo. The White House and congressional Republicans are seeking to avert the fiscal cliff, including the automatic spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011.
How this will end is unclear. As the old aphorism goes, “Those who say, don’t know, and those who know, don’t say.”
But we do know how we got here. The “supercommittee” last year only had to find $1.2 trillion in a combination of tax increases and expenditure savings over 10 years to avoid this cliff. That is $120 billion a year from a federal budget of $3.7 trillion — only 2.4 percent of the budget even if all the savings came from spending. The supercommittee failed. There was a time in this country when if the congressional leadership sent a select committee into a room to cut a deal, the leadership wouldn’t let the committee out of the room until a deal was reached.
To be sure, the circumstances that led to the super committee have been a long time in the making.
The financial markets played a key role. Investment banking and commercial banking were for many years comfortably separated by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1932. Investment bankers were all partnerships, playing with their own money. Their focus was to provide the capital and deals that funded businesses. But that wasn’t good enough, so Glass-Steagall was effectively repealed by Gramm- Leach-Bliley in 1999. This broke down the walls between securities and affiliated commercial banks. They could play with other people’s money. Much more risk was injected into the system.
The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 encouraged commercial banks and savings associations to meet the needs of all segments of communities. The pressure through the years forced banks to make risky loans. This, combined with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac absorbing all these loans with an implicit guarantee from the federal government, kept fueling high-risk loans.
Fast forward to China and U.S. trade deficits. Chinese investors had lots of money and were looking for secure returns. A combination of large sums of cash looking for a home and the invention of mortgage-backed securities created an almost unlimited demand for these financial products. A demand for securities to fill up tranches of collateralized debt obligations (derivatives) contributed to the further decrease in lending standards. When the supply of mortgages began to dry, the industry created a non-traded security based not on actual mortgages, but on the insurance against default of the securities (synthetic collateralized debt obligations).
This house of cards began to fall when only about 15 percent of mortgage holders began to default.
The sad story of the financial system was occurring as U.S. debt obligations were soaring. The current federal budget is about $3.7 trillion. The cost of running the government is approximately $1.3 trillion. With a deficit of more than a trillion dollars, the cost of government is now totally borrowed. Tax revenues cover only the mandatory spending — Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the debt. All discretionary spending is borrowed.
It is evident that mandatory spending is unsustainable. Discretionary spending, while in need of reform, can’t solve the problem. The solution is in the entitlements portion of mandatory spending, as well as in tax expenditures — carve-outs in the tax code such as mortgage deductions. Though important, the promises of mandatory spending are too excessive. Revenues have failed to keep pace as commitments have multiplied. And some benefits tend toward being counterproductive. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported recently that some children in Appalachian Kentucky are being pulled from literacy classes because the family might lose a $698 monthly check. The Supplemental Security Income Program provides the money to children who are deemed intellectually disabled.
Both political parties have contributed to the problem. Promises have piled up and must be addressed. Taken as a whole, they are no longer sustainable, and probably never were from the beginning.
The final consideration is U.S. interests and commitments around the world. The United States carries the financial burdens of providing global security. The nation was engaged in Iraq for eight years. And yet, the Iraqi government is not helping U.S. interests by giving free rein to Iran to resupply the Syrian government as it fights its own citizens. The war in Afghanistan has now continued for 11 years with scant hope for stability after the projected U.S. departure in 2014.
In the midst of all this turmoil, the all-volunteer military has been stretched beyond any reasonable expectation. Troops have performed magnificently, and suffered much without complaint. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coastguardsmen of today are the best we have ever had. Leadership at the officer and enlisted level is superb. The nation has obligations to them that must be honored. The coming debate will certainly target them and their earned benefits. Whatever happens must balance their service against what not only has been promised, but what they have earned.
Against this backdrop, the current debate over deficit reduction falls short. The target of $4 trillion is far too little. With a debt of $16 trillion — over $10 trillion of it public — and an annual deficit that exceeds $1 trillion, the target reduction for 10 years ought to be in the neighborhood of $9 trillion to $10 trillion.
The nation is playing small ball here. One way or the other, we will get around this immediate cliff, but it is only a short-term victory. Eventually there will be another cliff, because we will not have addressed the full extent of the problem: We have promised too much, tried too much, spent too much and cast too little.
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