Professor Larry Kotlikoff has some very sobering analysis of America’s fiscal status. Instead of just looking at current deficits, he examines the “present value” of all future expenditures and revenues. Simply stated, America is in worse shape than Greece because of the long-term burden of entitlement programs. Kotlikoff’s conclusion that America is “one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave” may be a bit too strong, but he is certainly correct that unrestrained spending is going to cause serious damage.
Greek long-term government bond yields are running 700 basis points above comparable US Treasuries. The inference is that America is in far better fiscal shape than Greece. Nothing could be further from the truth. Greek debt totals 120 per cent of gross domestic product, twice the US figure. But debt alone tells us little about a country’s fiscal condition. …During the past half-century, the US has sold tens of trillions of unofficial IOUs, leaving it with liabilities to pay Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits that total 40 times official debt. …Fortunately, theory suggests a label-free measure of fiscal status: the fiscal gap, or the present value difference between all future expenditures and receipts. The Greek fiscal gap is staggering. Calculations developed with my colleagues at Freiberg University put it at 11.5 per cent of the value of Greece’s future GDP. And this huge figure already incorporates Greece’s recently legislated fiscal policy retrenchment. But the US figure, based on the Congressional Budget Office’s just-released projections, is even larger: 12.2 per cent. Clearly, Greece is in terrible fiscal shape. To get its books in order it would have to pull in its belt each year by another 11.5 per cent of GDP. This provides new meaning to the word draconian. But the US is in much worse shape, because the CBO’s projections that reveal the 12.2 per cent fiscal gap already assume a 7.2 per cent of GDP belt-tightening by 2020. …Wishing won’t fix America’s fiscal mess. The US is one foot away from a deep and permanent economic grave. It is far past time to do meaningful long-term fiscal planning, level with the public, and implement radical reforms that permanently put America’s fiscal house in order.