Paul Ryan’s Budget is Not Nearly as Radical as the Status Quo

Filed Under (U.S. Fiscal Policy) by Jeffrey Brown on Aug 15, 2012

I find myself bemused by the sheer number of commentators that have labeled vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan a “radical” because of his views on the federal budget.  His core view – that we ought to keep federal spending as a share of GDP at a level approximately equal to where it has been for the entire lifetimes of most Americans – strikes me as far less radical than the current policy status quo.

Let’s start with some basic facts.  In the post-war period in the U.S., federal spending has averaged just under 20 percent of GDP.  (You can confirm this for yourself by going to the White House OMB site and downloading Table 1.2).  There have clearly been some ups and downs over this period for a variety of reasons, but it has never exceeded a quarter of GDP except for 2009 – the depths of the Great Recession – when outlays reached 25.2% of GDP.

In other words, for 60 years – through military conflicts great and small, through booms and busts, through the creation and demise of countless government programs, and through tectonic shifts in the global economic landscape, the U.S. has found it possible to keep government at about 20% of GDP.  And throughout this period, the economic engine of the U.S. remained the envy of the world, even now in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

Absent substantial changes to our public policies, however, U.S. government spending as a share of GDP is projected to rise at an unprecedented rate.  According to the CBO’s “extended alternative fiscal scenario,” which they describe roughly as a continuation of current policies, spending as a share of GDP is projected rise to 35.7% of GDP in just the next 25 years.  This seems to me to be prima facie evidence that our future fiscal problems are being driven by rising spending, rather than a lack of revenue.

Given this, what sounds more radical?  Suggesting that we make cut the growth rate of spending to keep the ratio of government-to-GDP near historical levels, as Paul Ryan has suggested?  Or allowing government to grow from 20% to over 35% of GDP?

Google’s definition of radical is “affecting the fundamental nature of something.”  A failure to change policy course would affect the fundamental nature of the U.S. economy.  Now that is radical.

If we want to avoid this, then we need to re-think the role of government.  Most of the future projected growth of government is due to a rising health care costs and an aging population.  One cannot slow rising health care costs and population aging simply by cutting spending, as any serious student of the budget – of which I consider Paul Ryan to be one – already knows.  Nor is it obvious we really want to stop all those trends – at least some of the rise in health spending brings new health benefits, and most of us are quite happy to live longer.

What we can do is recognize that our programs need to change with the times.  Remaining life expectancy today, conditional on reaching age 62, is about 50% longer than it was in the 1960s.  Yet we continue to encourage people to exit the labor force early.  Even worse, we have created a mentality where most Americans seem to believe that they have a God-given right to have their retirement income and health care expenses paid for by taxpayers after they reach age 62 or 65.  At a minimum, we should recognize that if people are living both longer and healthier lives than they were in decades past, we ought to make them wait longer to start receiving benefits.

There are good reasons to have Social Security and Medicare.  But we need to recognize that the fiscal burden they are placing on taxpayers is going to grow rapidly in the years to come, and that the best way forward is to reform them to make them sustainable for future generations.  Paying for these rapid cost increases through an inefficient tax system that depresses investment, discourages entrepreneurship, penalizes work, and retards economic growth is the real “radical” solution – and the one that should work hard to avoid.