Why Budgets Are Busted

Three stories in today’s Washington Post help us to understand why governments around the world are facing unmanageable deficits. On the front page:

When Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero took power seven years ago, he and his Socialist Workers’ Party set out to perfect the welfare state in Spain. The goal was to equal— or even surpass — lavish social protections that have long been the rule for Spain’s Western European neighbors.

True to his Socialist principles and riding an economic boom, Zapatero raised the minimum wage and extended health insurance to cover everything from sniffles to sex changes. He made scholarships available to all. Young adults got rent subsidies called “emancipation” money. Mothers got $3,500 for the birth of a child, toddlers attended free nurseries and the elderly got stipends for nursing care.

On page 3, a story about federal pensions, which still offer federal employees

a benefit lost long ago by many workers at private companies — a guaranteed retirement check paid largely by the boss.

These traditional pensions, called defined-benefit plans, have long been an attractive feature of government work.

On the op-ed page, George Will notes that in 1975 then-governor Jerry Brown said that his plan was

To stand up to the special pleaders who are encamped, I should say, encircling the state capitol, and to see through their particular factional claims to the broad public interest.

Three years later, “Brown conferred on government employees the right to unionize and bargain collectively.” Now, from prison guards to teachers, the public employee unions press for unaffordable spending and block efforts at reform. And again-governor Jerry Brown would rather raise taxes than stand up to the unions that helped elect him.

As has been noted many times, politicians spend all the money that comes in when times are good. They don’t put anything aside for the possibility of lean years. And they make commitments, like pensions and collective bargaining agreements, that will prove to be fiscal time bombs, exploding long after the next election. It looks like the long run is here.