The Coming Age of Austerity
"Are the good times really over for good?" asked Merle Haggard in his 1982 lament.
Then, the good times weren't over. In fact, they were coming back, with the Reagan recovery, the renewal of the American spirit and the end of a Cold War that had consumed so much of our lives.
Yet whoever wins today, it is hard to be sanguine about the future. The demographic and economic realities do not permit it.
Consider. Between 1946 and 1964, 79 million babies were born — the largest, best-educated and most successful generation in our history. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, were in that first class of baby boomers.
Assume that 75 million of these 79 million boomers survive to age 66. This means that from this year through 2030, an average of nearly 4 million boomers will be retiring every year. This translates into some 11,000 boomers becoming eligible for Medicare and Social Security every single day for the next 18 years.
Add in immigrants in that same age category and the fact that baby boomers live longer than the Greatest Generation or Silent Generation seniors, and you have an immense and unavoidable increase coming in expenditures for our largest entitlement programs.
Benefits will have to be curbed or cut and payroll taxes will have to rise, especially for Medicare, to make good on our promises to seniors.
As for the rest of our federal budget of nearly $4 trillion, we have run four consecutive deficits of over $1 trillion. To bring that budget to balance, freezes would have to be imposed and cuts made in spending for defense and other social programs.
From California to Wisconsin to New York, we see the process at work at the state level. Government salaries are frozen, government payrolls are cut, government pensions and programs are scaled back.
California and Illinois are on the precipice of default. Cities like Detroit, Birmingham, Stockton and San Bernardino are already there.
As for national defense, how long can we afford to spend more than the 10 other top nations combined? How long can we continue to defend scores of nations half a world away? How many more trillion-dollar wars like Iraq and Afghanistan can we fight on borrowed money?
Moreover, the day of the great national enterprises is over.
FDR had his New Deal and World War II, Ike his federal highway system, Kennedy his space program, LBJ his Great Society, Reagan his military buildup and tax cuts, Bush his two wars and tax cuts, Obama his Obamacare.
But there is nothing left in the till to do big things. One sees only deficits and debt all the way to the horizon.
Europe has arrived at where we are headed. In the south of the old continent — Spain, Italy and Greece — the new austerity has begun to imperil the social order. In the north, the disposition to be taxed to pay for other nations' social safety nets is disappearing.
With government in the U.S. at all levels consuming 40 percent of gross domestic product, and taxes 30 percent, taxes will have to rise and government spending be controlled or cut. The alternative is to destroy the debt by depreciating the dollars in which it is denominated — i.e., by Fed-induced inflation.
But you can only rob your creditors once. After that, they never trust you again.
There is another social development rarely discussed.
The workers who are replacing retiring baby boomers in the labor force are increasingly minorities.
Black folks and Hispanics alone account now for 30 percent of the population — and rising rapidly.
Yet these two minorities have high school dropout rates of up to 50 percent in many cities, and many who do graduate have math, reading and science scores at seventh-, eighth- and ninth-grade levels.
Can their contributions to an advanced economy be as great as were those of baby boomers of the '60s and '70s, whose SAT scores were among the highest we ever recorded? U.S. scores in global competition have been plummeting toward Third World levels.
Everyone talks about how we are going to raise test scores. But, despite record and rising investments in education per student, no one in decades has found a way to do this consistently.
Moreover, while boomers were almost all born into families where mother and father were married and living together, Hispanics have a 53 percent illegitimacy rate, African-Americans a 73 percent rate.
Among the white poor and working class, the illegitimacy rate is now 40 percent — almost twice as high as it was in black America when Pat Moynihan wrote his 1965 report on the crisis of the black family.
And between the illegitimacy rate and the drug-use rate, dropout rate, crime rate and incarceration rate, the correlation is absolute.
Some of us are often accused of always "crying wolf." But it is worth noting that one day the wolf came.