Whoever wins this year's presidential election may feel a lot like storied conservative thought-leader William F. Buckley Jr. when he ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, according to political observer George Will. When asked what he would do if he were elected, Buckley replied, "Demand a recount."
Speaking at the third annual Innovative Alternative Strategies conference in Denver, Will compared to U.S. budget situation to the predicament of the Ernest Hemingway character Mike Campbell. When he was asked how he went bankrupt, Campbell said it happened "gradually and then suddenly."
In 1916, Will noted, the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller, could have written a personal check and retired the national debt. Today, Bill Gates could liquidate his entire net worth and pay off two months' interest on the national debt.
Since 2007, about $7 trillion in U.S. home equity has been vaporized and unemployment would stand at 10.9% if the labor force hadn't been subjected to statistical reductions. "We're replicating the mistakes of the New Deal" when unemployment never got below 14%, Will told the audience.
That leads to the death spiral of the welfare state, where taxes must go up to pay ever increasing unemployment costs. Young people who can't find work delay marriage and conceiving children, leading to population stagnation so that eventually there are not enough adults to support the burgeoning entitlement society.
On top of that, the U.S. has built its economy on consumption, accounting for 70% of GDP, which creates its own set of problems, according to Will. Savings shrunk from 9% of GDP in the 1980s to 5% of GDP in the 1990s and went negative in 2005.
Many Americans have multiple credit cards, and the nation has separated the pleasure of consumption from the pain of paying for it. Since the Great Recession began, household debt has fallen from 133% to 114% of GDP. In 1980, it was about 45%.
"We are now confronting a most predictable problem," Will said. On January 1, 2008, baby boomers started turning 62. You know how that story goes. If Social Security had been indexed to life expectancy, eligibility today would begin at 74 years old.
Because the welfare state exists, older people vote disproportionately. Despite all the media coverage of youngsters voting for President Obama in 2008, 40% of the vote that year came from folks over 50 years old, Will said.
The fastest-growing age cohort is the over-85 group, and Will said their health-care costs are five times higher than those of a typical 55 year old. "In 1941 when I was born, the principal expense of a hospital was clean linen," Will said. "Sooner or later, the economy will start growing [again] and we'll spend it on health care."
When John Kennedy was president, health care represented 6% of GDP, not today's 18%. When Kennedy was president, individuals paid directly for 40% of their health care; today, that figure is 12%.
Will asked the audience how many of them asked their doctor what the cost of a particular lab test would be and maybe 20 out of 600 hands went up. "Liars," he told them.
Since 1943 the IRS has allowed employers to deduct health insurance as an expense, permitting costs to rise invisibly and insidiously. Ironically, it was John McCain, a politician who Will said never cared about domestic policy issues or "anything that didn't explode" or blow up, who recommended terminating business deductibility of health insurance and giving individuals large subsidies to buy their own insurance and actually see what they were paying for.
"We can dodge our responsibilities but we can't dodge the consequences," Will said. "We are about to have a ten-year debate about taxes."
With about 50 percent of the nation paying no federal income tax, there is little incentive to restrain taxes. Quoting Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, Will observed, "Wouldn't it be nice to have a tax code that looked like someone designed it on purpose? Our tax code looks more like envy." Envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that doesn't even give the sinner momentary pleasure.