No Matter Who Wins, We All Lose

The 2020 presidential election cycle has been going on since November 9, 2016, the day after Trump’s upset victory, but with the Democratic primaries at hand, it’s kicking into high gear. As the field narrows, we’ll get a sense of the messaging that’s supposed to sway our votes.

As for Trump, he seems erratic and, from time to time, sounds incoherent. But if you stop reading Twitter and pay attention to his policies, he has remained remarkably consistent in following through with campaign promises.

Among other things, he cut taxes, reduced regulation, worked on slowing illegal immigration, appointed conservative judges, and scaled back government oversight. True, he didn’t create a “beautiful” health care program to replace the Affordable Care Act that would cost less and do more, but neither did the ACA.

On the other side of the aisle, the main message is to beat Trump, and then to work on sharing more of the wealth created by the nation with a wider group, improving healthcare, creating family benefits like paid leave and universal childcare, and raising taxes to pay for some of it.

No one pretends to care about the fact that we’ve mortgaged our future.

The Balance Sheet

I’m not referring just to the national deficits and debt, which I touched on earlier this week. Those are easy to see, and getting bigger. I’m talking about programs and costs that we know exist, but haven’t hit our national balance sheet yet, so we sort of ignore them.

Social Security and Medicare are the easiest examples, but they’re not the only problems.

When President Lyndon Johnson rolled entitlement programs into the federal budget, he wanted to mask the growing national deficit by adding in entitlement contributions which far outstripped benefit payments. That was in 1968, in a galaxy far, far away.

Fifty-two years later, entitlements eat up 60% of the federal budget and both programs run a deficit. Medicare will eat through its trust fund in five or six years, while the Social Security Trust Fund might last another 10 to 15 years.

Then what?

If we try to model the real cost of the programs, estimating what we need to save today to pay for the benefits tomorrow, the numbers quickly jump to the tens of trillions of dollars. Then we quit paying attention.

Then there are roads, bridges, dams, and airports, otherwise known as infrastructure. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been warning about our deteriorating infrastructure for more than a decade. In 2009, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, pledging to put a huge chunk of the $840 billion toward “shovel ready” projects.

That’s not where we spent the money.

Less than $50 billion actually went toward such improvements, with most of it spent on plugging big holes in state budgets.

The ASCE estimates that to make our infrastructure safe, we must spend $4.5 trillion by 2025. I’ll give you three guesses as to whether or not that will happen, and if the first two aren’t “Not a chance,” then they don’t count.

We’ll wait, and watch bridges fail and dams burst before we act. But the time is coming when we won’t be able to put off such spending.

And then there are state and local public pensions, another multi-trillion-dollar hole. Pew Research estimates that we’re $4.3 trillion behind in funding, with cities like Chicago and states like Illinois close to being bankrupt.

Beyond areas with identifiable costs, we’ve got things like environmental concerns. Whether you think it’s happening or not, the governments of the world are moving toward intervention… and it’s going to be breathtakingly expensive.

No Solutions

All of these issues have one thing in common – they show how we’ve used an asset or created a liability without setting aside the funds to pay for it. In short, we’ve mortgaged our future. And neither party is working on a solution. Not because the problems are insurmountable, but because the answers are obvious, and call for sacrifice.

We need to lower benefits and raise taxes. Every one of the issues above can be addressed through a combination of lower benefits and raised taxes. Eventually, every issue will be addressed this way, it’s just the “when” that’s in question.

The first economic shot across the bow should come from failing pensions in the next three years, followed by the bankruptcy of Medicare.

Along the way, we could have a disaster or two from failing infrastructure. I don’t expect any of these things to cause a radical change in how we go about our daily lives.

Instead, we’ll see incremental changes that build toward a massive restructuring of how we fund the assets and benefits that we’ve been using or promised for decades. If you’re receiving benefits, or expect to in the future, consider what will happen if the checks get smaller. If you’re paying taxes, ask how you’ll cope with bigger tax bills.

If you’re one of the unlucky ones in the middle, expecting to get benefits while paying a lot of taxes, chances are you’ll get squeezed even more, no matter whom you vote for.