In a column addressed to his fellow baby boomers (sorry, this Gen-Xer peeked anyway!) New York Times columnist Bill Keller says one way for his generation to shed its reputation of entitlement and selfishness is, well, to be less selfish about entitlements.
He refers to a study by the Democratic think tank Third Way that examines the tremendous growth of, as Keller puts it, the federal government’s “safety-net programs that provide a measure of economic stability for the aging and poor: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.” The growth of this spending, he and Third Way argue, is crowding out federal spending for “‘investments,’ which includes maintaining our national infrastructure, keeping our military equipped, helping assure that our work force is educated to a high standard, and underwriting the kind of basic scientific research that is too risky or long-term to attract private money.”
The answer, he suggests, is for liberals to embrace reforms of the entitlement programs. I agree with his conclusion, but there’s an important misperception to correct along the way.
Here’s how Keller summarizes Third Way’s findings:
In 1962, we were laying down the foundations of prosperity. About 32 cents of every federal dollar, excluding interest payments, was spent on investments, only 14 percent on entitlements. In the mid-70s the lines crossed. Today we spend less than 15 cents on investment and 46 cents on entitlements. And it gets worse. By 2030, when the last of us boomers have surged onto the Social Security rolls, entitlements will consume 61 cents of every federal dollar, starving our already neglected investment and leaving us, in the words of the study, with “a less-skilled work force, lower rates of job creation, and an infrastructure unfit for a 21st-century economy.”
Sounds pretty bleak for “investments,” huh?
But what these figures obscure is that spending on Third Way’s “investments” category — adjusted for inflation and population growth — has in fact increased significantly during the past 50 years.
How can that be?
Start with the fact that, in 1962, federal spending (see Table 8.4) minus net interest payments equaled 17.6 percent of gross domestic product, or GDP. In 2012, it’s expected to hit 22.9 percent of GDP. So federal spending as a share of the economy is higher today by almost one-third.
Then move on to the fact that GDP, adjusted for inflation, is nearly 4.5 times larger today: Annualized, it stood at $13.56 trillion in the second quarter of 2012 (the most recent data available) compared to $3.06 trillion in the same three months of 1962.
Finally, consider that our population has grown by only about 70 percent during the past half century: from 186.5 million to 314.4 million (note: the Census Bureau has not yet released its estimate for July 1, 2012, so I took the figure for a year earlier and applied the same growth rate the Census Bureau applied for 2010 to 2011; my number ought to be pretty close to the eventual Census estimate, or at least close enough for today’s exercise).
Run the numbers, including Third Way’s calculations of “investments” and “entitlements” as percentages of the federal budget, and here’s what you get:
Inflation-adjusted, per capita federal spending
So, while it’s true that entitlement spending has grown massively since JFK’s presidency — by more than 1,000 percent on a real per capita basis — it’s also true that real per capita spending on that group of “investments” has grown by 60 percent. Not too shabby. Viewed similarly, spending on everything else (besides net interest payments) has also soared by almost 150 percent.
To reiterate: I agree with Keller and Third Way that entitlement reform is desperately needed. And I join them in urging boomers, particularly those of the liberal persuasion, to be open to such changes. Where I part company with them is in the reason this needs to happen.
It’s not to spend more money elsewhere in the federal budget, but to free the economy from the burden of all excessive federal spending.
– By Kyle Wingfield