With a bailout bill that totals $8.5 trillion so far and a "stimulus package" yet to come, the federal debt, currently about $6.3 trillion, can be expected to grow substantially in the next few years. But as a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis notes, the official number is limited to debt held by the public; it does not include entitlement obligations. The report's authors, economists Andrew Rettenmaier and Thomas Saving, estimate that paying Social Security and Medicare benefits to current workers will cost $52 trillion. If these programs were funded by investments, they say, the government would have to set aside $102 trillion ("about 7 times the size of the U.S. economy") to keep the programs solvent. Assuming the government continues to use current tax revenue to pay for Social Security and Medicare, the two programs will consume one-tenth of the federal budget by 2012, almost half by 2030, and 80 percent by 2070.
Rettenmaier and Saving concede that their preferred solution—reforming Social Security and Medicare "so that each worker saves and invests funds for his own post-retirement pension and health care benefits"—would impose a "substantial" burden on current workers, who would have to "sav[e] for their own benefits while at the same time paying taxes to fund the benefits of current retirees." But the alternatives—a crushing tax burden and/or dramatic benefit cuts—are even less appealing. Except if you're a politician whose main concern is getting re-elected in two, four, or six years. Too bad there's no other kind.
The full NCPA report is here (PDF).