By Robert J. Samuelson
Monday, March 29, 2010; A19
When historians recount the momentous events of recent weeks, they will note a curious coincidence. On March 15, Moody's Investors Service -- the bond rating agency -- published a paper warning that the exploding U.S. government debt could cause a downgrade of Treasury bonds. Just six days later, the House of Representatives passed President Obama's health-care legislation costing $900 billion or so over a decade and worsening an already-bleak budget outlook.
Should the United States someday suffer a budget crisis, it will be hard not to conclude that Obama and his allies sowed the seeds, because they ignored conspicuous warnings. A further irony will not escape historians. For two years, Obama and members of Congress have angrily blamed the shortsightedness and selfishness of bankers and rating agencies for causing the recent financial crisis. The president and his supporters, historians will note, were equally shortsighted and self-centered -- though their quest was for political glory, not financial gain.
Let's be clear. A "budget crisis" is not some minor accounting exercise. It's a wrenching political, social and economic upheaval. Large deficits and rising debt -- the accumulation of past deficits -- spook investors, leading to higher interest rates on government loans. The higher rates expand the budget deficit and further unnerve investors. To reverse this calamitous cycle, the government has to cut spending deeply or raise taxes sharply. Lower spending and higher taxes in turn depress the economy and lead to higher unemployment. Not pretty.
Greece is experiencing such a crisis. Until recently, conventional wisdom held that only developing countries -- managed ineptly -- were candidates for true budget crises. No more. Most wealthy societies with aging populations, including the United States, face big gaps between their spending promises and their tax bases. No one in Congress could be unaware of this.
Two weeks before the House vote, the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate of Obama's budget, including its health-care program. From 2011 to 2020, the cumulative deficit is almost $10 trillion. Adding 2009 and 2010, the total rises to $12.7 trillion. In 2020, the projected annual deficit is $1.25 trillion, equal to 5.6 percent of the economy (gross domestic product). That assumes economic recovery, with unemployment at 5 percent. Spending is almost 30 percent higher than taxes. Total debt held by the public rises from 40 percent of GDP in 2008 to 90 percent in 2020, close to its post-World War II peak.
To criticisms, Obama supporters make two arguments. First, the CBO says the plan reduces the deficit by $143 billion over a decade. Second, the legislation contains measures (an expert panel to curb Medicare spending, emphasis on "comparative effectiveness research") to control health spending. These rejoinders are self-serving and unconvincing.
Suppose the CBO estimate is correct. So? The $143 billion saving is about 1 percent of the projected $12.7 trillion deficit from 2009 to 2020. If the administration has $1 trillion or so of spending cuts and tax increases over a decade, all these monies should first cover existing deficits -- not finance new spending. Obama's behavior resembles a highly indebted family's taking an expensive round-the-world trip because it claims to have found ways to pay for it. It's self-indulgent and reckless.
But the CBO estimate is misleading, because it must embody the law's many unrealistic assumptions and gimmicks. Benefits are phased in "so that the first 10 years of [higher] revenue would be used to pay for only six years of spending" increases, a former CBO director, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, wrote in the New York Times on March 20. Holtz-Eakin also noted the $70 billion of premiums for a new program of long-term care that reduce present deficits but will be paid out in benefits later. Then there's the "doc fix" -- higher Medicare reimbursements under separate legislation that would cost about $200 billion over a decade.
Proposals to control health spending face restrictions that virtually ensure failure. Consider the "Independent Payment Advisory Board" aimed at Medicare. "The Board is prohibited from submitting proposals that would ration care, increase revenues or change benefits, eligibility or Medicare beneficiary cost sharing," says a summary by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. What's left? Similarly, findings from "comparative effectiveness research" -- intended to identify ineffective care -- "may not be construed as mandates, guidelines or recommendations for payment, coverage or treatment." What's the point then?
So Obama is flirting with a future budget crisis. Moody's emphasizes two warning signs: rising debt and loss of confidence that government will deal with it. Obama fulfills both. The parallels with the recent financial crisis are striking. Bankers and rating agencies engaged in wishful thinking to rationalize self-interest. Obama does the same. No one can tell when or whether a crisis will come. There is no magic tipping point. But Obama is raising the chances.