The Battle over Entitlements Isn’t Lost Yet

I thought I would step out from behind Cato Unbound’s editorial curtain and make a comment here about what’s going on over there. In particular, I’d like to offer some words of encouragement to my friends David Frum and Bruce Bartlett, both of whom are downhearted (excessively, in my opinion) about the prospects of checking and reversing the entitlement-driven expansion of government spending.

Both David and Bruce make strong cases for their pessimism. David points to the opportunities blown during the nineties, while Bruce stresses the huge increases in spending that existing commitments under Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will necessitate in coming years.

Good points, but not the whole story. Yes, the nineties offered what in retrospect were optimal conditions for restructuring America’s entitlement commitments and thereby winning huge victories for good policy and limited government. But to adopt the clear-eyed realism that David and Bruce urge, since when did countries ever make major systemic reforms at the optimal time? Over the past generation, we have seen bold moves around the world to unwind overreaching government and install more market-friendly policies. And almost without exception, those moves have occurred, not when favorable conditions permitted sweeping changes with a minimum of short-term pain and dislocation, but when countries had their backs against the wall. Gorbachev’s launch of perestroika and the resulting collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, India’s dismantling of central planning, the general turn toward macroeconomic stabilization, trade liberalization, and privatization throughout the less developed world, New Zealand’s dramatic policy turnaround – all occurred when countries were in extremis and alternatives to liberal reform had been exhausted.

So while it’s disappointing, it’s not terribly surprising that we have thus far failed to face up to the fiscal unsustainability of our existing entitlement commitments. We have opted for delay because delay has been the path of least resistance, but it will not remain so indefinitely. At some point, the day of reckoning will arrive, and we will face an unavoidable choice: pay to keep the promises we have made with huge tax increases, or repudiate those promises and restructure the programs that made them. It is entirely possible that, when the time comes, we will end up choosing something much closer to the former than the latter. Certainly that is what David and Bruce seem to assume.  But I don’t think it’s inevitable. Indeed, there are sound, non-wishful-thinking reasons for believing that the limited-government side has a fighting chance.

After a steady runup from the 1930s through the 1960s, total government spending as a percentage of GDP has been stable for a generation [.pdf], knocking around the 35 percent range (see Figure VI.1 on page 163). Yet if no changes are made to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, spending under those programs will increase dramatically over the coming decades – according to this CBO report, from 8 percent of GDP today to 21 percent in 2075. Which means a commensurate 13 percentage point increase in overall government spending as a share of GDP, and a mind-bogglingly large tax increase to pay for it all.

Bruce assumes that because past efforts to roll back government spending’s share of GDP have been unsuccessful, further whopping increases in that share are all but inevitable.  But how does that follow? Look at things another way: efforts to prevent increases in government spending’s share of GDP have been highly successful for over three decades. Why is it unimaginable that such success can be continued? Isn’t it conceivable that, when faced with a ruinously expensive tax increase, Americans will choose a repudiation of past promises, and a restructuring of future commitments, as the lesser of two evils?

David and Bruce seem to assume that repudiating past promises will be next to impossible. I think that assumption is unwarranted. Countries around the world have repudiated obligations under fiscally unsound public pension programs – and so did we (by increasing the retirement age and subjecting benefits to taxation) in the 1983 Social Security reform. And unsustainable corporate promises to retirees are being repudiated left and right these days, without any strong political backlash.

So there is hope. A battle is looming, and the limited-government side is very much alive. Because we have waited so long, partial repudiation of past promises will inflict pain that could have been avoided. And even with partial repudiation, the price tag of taking care of existing retirees and near-retirees will be hefty. But if we do succeed in restructuring these programs, that transition can be financed, and after digesting the rat the government snake can slim down again.

It won’t be easy. We could lose. But we are not foredoomed.