The U.S. and Greece: Far Too Much in Common

Last week, Keith Hall, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told Congress that the United States could be facing a Greek-style debt crisis down the road.

“Unfortunately,” Hall testified, “there is no way to predict confidently whether or when such a fiscal crisis might occur in the United States… . But all else being equal, the larger a government’s debt, the greater the risk of a fiscal crisis.”

That’s not exactly a ringing vote of confidence.

Obviously there are big differences between the U.S. and Greece. Our economy is far bigger and more diverse. Most of our debt is held by Americans and American institutions, while Greek debt is mostly held by foreigners (although an alarming 34 percent of U.S. debt is foreign-held, including 7 percent each by China and Japan). And, most important, we control our own currency and monetary policy, unlike the Greeks, who are in thrall to the European Central Bank. If nothing else, we always have the option of devaluing our currency, an option the Greeks lack as long as they remain in the eurozone.

That said, we have far too much in common with the Greeks for comfort.

Hillary Clinton vowed to make the United States more, not less, like Greece — the pre-reform Greece.

Our national debt currently approaches $18.2 trillion, roughly 101 percent of our GDP — that is, more than the value of all goods and services produced in this country over the course of a year. It’s as if your credit-card bills exceeded your entire paycheck. And Hall predicts that our debt will rise significantly in coming decades. Our situation is not quite as bad as that of Greece, of course, whose debt exceeds 177 percent of its GDP. But it is worse than those of France and Spain. What’s more, if one includes future unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare, our real debt exceeds $90 trillion. That’s more than five times our GDP. Greece is in still worse shape — its unfunded liabilities top 875 percent of GDP — but at some point degrees of disaster become pretty much irrelevant.

Already, according to Hall, unless we are willing to cut spending and reform entitlements, it will cost a middle-income family $750 in additional taxes next year, and every year after that, just to hold the debt at its current level. Bringing the debt back down to its average post–World War II level would require a $1,700 tax increase on the middle class next year, with larger hikes to follow.

Yet, distracted as we are by the Donald Trump sideshow and divisive social issues, no one seems to notice as we slide ever closer to the Greek precipice.

As a condition of the latest bailout, the EU is requiring Greece to make wide-reaching changes to its pensions, labor and regulatory policies, tax system, and other areas. It remains to be seen whether Greece will follow through on these reforms, but theoretically they would begin to cut through the socialist sclerosis that has wrecked the Greek economy.

There is no similar body to impose such fiscal discipline on the United States (nor would we want to surrender our fiscal sovereignty in that way). Still, imagine what it would mean if there were.

For example, the Greeks are being required to raise their retirement age and bring their pension system into balance. Under a comparable agreement, the United States would have to reform its Social Security system in such a way as to reduce the $24.9 trillion unfunded liability. We would likely also have to tackle Medicare reform, since that program’s unfunded liabilities are nearly twice as large as Social Security’s — some $47.6 trillion in the most optimistic scenarios.

Greece is also being required to liberalize its labor and business regulations to help Greek businesses become more competitive, generate more jobs, and increase economic growth. In the United States, that would mean jettisoning counterproductive and burdensome regulations on business, including Obamacare.

The Greeks must also cut government spending generally and privatize state-owned assets in the transportation, telecommunications, and energy sectors. In the U.S., comparable reforms might include a balanced-budget amendment, an end to government bailouts of banks and other businesses, and the privatization of quasi-governmental entities like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At the very least it would mean an end to bipartisan efforts to undercut sequestration.

Even on taxes, there are parallels between the U.S. and Greece. We would not want to emulate the tax hikes that the Greeks will have to impose (a mistake for them too), but the Greeks are also being required to eliminate many of the exemptions and other loopholes in their tax code that benefit specific businesses or locations. Such special-interest provisions are not just revenue losers, they also introduce serious economic distortions. The U.S. tax code is also littered with special-interest loopholes and tax breaks that should be eliminated in exchange for lower overall rates. A flatter, simpler tax code would both be fairer and generate more economic growth.

But, as noted above, fiscal discipline is not going to be imposed on the United States from outside. If we are to get our fiscal house in order, we are going to have to do it ourselves.

Unfortunately, to see how hard that will be, just look to Hillary Clinton. At almost the same moment that the Greeks were being dragged kicking and screaming toward economic responsibility, Clinton was delivering a speech promising to move the United States in precisely the opposite direction.

Clinton’s economic speech on Monday was one long promise to spend more, tax more, regulate more, and redistribute more. In short, she vowed to make the United States more, not less, like Greece — the pre-reform Greece.

That leaves an opening for a Republican to pick up the banner of fiscal restraint and run with it. But so far, the GOP candidates seem to be talking about anything and everything else. And every day of silence makes a Greek-like day of reckoning just a bit more likely.

Michael Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of Going for Broke: Deficits, Debt, and the Entitlement Crisis.