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Call this a crisis? Just wait

Actually, don't wait, because we've got to stop a bigger economic disaster in the making: 78 million baby-boomers eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

By David M. Walker, former U.S. Comptroller General
Last Updated: October 30, 2008: 10:55 AM ET

(Fortune Magazine) -- Staring into the abyss always focuses the mind, which can help you avoid falling in. So let's take a look at the potential catastrophe that awaits us once we survive our current crisis.

At the dawn of the 21st century the U.S. had $5.7 trillion in total debt. As we approach the end of George W. Bush's presidency only eight years later, that sum has nearly doubled, thanks to war costs, tax cuts, spending increases, expanded entitlement programs, and now a welter of government bailouts and rescues.

This year was particularly bad. The federal budget deficit for fiscal 2008 hit $455 billion, up from $162 billion last year. That figure does not include the cost of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which has an initial pricetag in the hundreds of billions of dollars. In fairness, some of that money presumably will come back to the Treasury, since the new rescue-related sums will be used to acquire preferred stock, mortgages, and other assets that someday could be sold at a profit.

Yet any such calculations are penny ante compared with the fiscal disaster that is bearing down on America. It's no longer an event in the misty future. It officially began earlier this year when teacher Kathleen Casey-Kirschling of Maryland became the first baby-boom retiree to collect Social Security benefits. She will be followed by about 78 million more boomers over the next 17 years.

The entitlements due from Social Security and Medicare present us with that frightening abyss. The costs of these current programs, along with other health-care costs, could bankrupt our country. The abyss offers no assets, troubled or otherwise, to help us cross it.

Yes, some have suggested less-than-revolutionary measures that could help. Among them: budget savings that would accrue from repealing the Bush-era tax cuts, ending the Iraq war, or expanding the economy after the current downturn runs its course. But even if the economy were to grow at the level of 3.2% a year, as it did in the 1990s, and these other savings were achieved, they wouldn't come close to addressing our federal financial problem.

Nor can we be complacent about timing. The costs of these programs start to threaten our solvency in the next several years. The only way to get across the chasm is to begin making tough choices now to change our current course. Delay will make the problem worse.

In fact, the deteriorating financial condition of our federal government in the face of skyrocketing health-care costs and the baby-boom retirement could fairly be described as a super-subprime crisis. It would certainly dwarf what we're seeing now.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), noting that the federal balance sheet does not reflect the government's huge unfunded promises in our nation's social-insurance programs, estimated last year that the unfunded obligations for Medicare and Social Security alone totaled almost $41 trillion. That sum, equivalent to $352,000 per U.S. household, is the present-value shortfall between the growing cost of entitlements and the dedicated revenues intended to pay for them over the next 75 years.

Why call it a super-subprime crisis? Besides its gigantic scale, there are very disturbing similarities between the current mortgage-related crisis and our next potential disaster.

First, like the securitized investment vehicles that blew up, federal programs were launched without adequately thinking through who would bear the ultimate cost and related risk. Just as originators of mortgages let themselves off the hook by unloading packages of dubious loans onto others, lawmakers have increased spending, expanded entitlement programs, and cut taxes while expecting future generations to pay the bill.

Second, just as a lack of transparency associated with mortgage-backed securities resulted in big surprises and large losses for investors, our nation's huge off-balance-sheet obligations for Social Security and Medicare present a threat wrapped in camouflage. After all, the government's "trust funds" don't really provide much security since they don't hold anything but more government debt.

Third, in the same way that private sector "risk management" executives failed to prevent the subprime mortgage crisis, overseers in Congress and the executive branch have turned a blind eye to costs associated with entitlement programs and tax cuts. While lax regulation of banks fed the current subprime crisis, a lack of statutory budget controls has led to a widening gap between the government's revenues and costs.

At the heart of these problems is our leaders' collective failure to act in the face of known challenges. Our country has veered from its founding principles, which held to individual responsibility and accountability today in order to create more opportunity tomorrow. When our constitution was written, the concepts of thrift and prudence were no less at the center of the American spirit than liberty and justice.

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