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Heavy Over All Our Heads

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Sunday, February 27, 2005; Page F01

With the Bush administration, one never knows what is intentional and what isn't, but the president's proposal to introduce private investment accounts into Social Security has certainly served to divert attention from whether the whole federal government is headed for a fiscal train wreck.

That's probably a good idea, from the administration's point of view, because both it and many private employers are asking people to pin their retirement and other hopes for the future on financial assets. And they are asking this at a time when the government is promising benefits and services it can't come close to affording without taxing the fillings out of our teeth or going to banana republic-style inflation -- or both.

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It is a reality that David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, has been trying to point out to everyone who will listen and to those who won't.

Walker is head of the Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency that studies government programs and policies and reports on how well or badly they are working.

We are standing, Walker has said, on "a burning platform."

The costs of the three big social programs of our society -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- are rising so fast that by 2040 they and interest payments on federal borrowings will consume all the government's revenue, even assuming that the Bush tax cuts are allowed to expire and that discretionary government spending (spending that is not already promised by law) grows only at the rate of inflation.

And if the tax cuts are extended, rather than being allowed to expire, and discretionary spending increases in step with the economy, rather than with inflation, which is usually lower, interest payments alone will eat up all but a tiny fraction of the government's income.

That would certainly be "starving the beast," as some conservatives like to call shrinking the government by cutting off its money, but do they really want to do without the Pentagon and Homeland Security?

"The long-term fiscal pressures we face are daunting and unprecedented in the nation's history," Walker told the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee earlier this month.

"Making no changes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other drivers of the long-term fiscal gap would require at least a doubling of taxes in the future -- and that seems inappropriate and implausible," he said.

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