Is the United States a Bankrupt Nation?

August 11, 2006

Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff sure thinks so. And his argument is surprisingly compelling.

The gist of his case is that national “bankruptcy” isn’t simply when a government can’t pay its bills in the current fiscal year. Instead, it’s an evaluative determination based on the likely paths of future spending and taxes that, in the absence of divine intervention, there’s simply no way a nation can meet its future obligations.

By that measure, today the U.S. Treasury is a bankrupt entity, according to Kotlikoff. The reason is simple—just have a look at the growth of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security lurking over the horizon in the Congressional Budget Office’s startling long-term budget projections.

Here’s a sample from Kotlikoff’s latest piece on the subject, from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis’ Review:

Is the U.S. bankrupt? Or to paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary, is the United States at the end of its resources, exhausted, stripped bear, destitute, bereft, wanting in property, or wrecked in consequence of failure to pay its creditors?

Many would scoff at this notion. They’d point out that the country has never defaulted on its debt; that its debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio is substantially lower than that of Japan and other developed countries; that its long-term nominal interest rates are historically low; that the dollar is the world’s reserve currency; and that China, Japan, and other countries have an insatiable demand for U.S. Treasuries.

Others would argue that the official debt reflects nomenclature, not fiscal fundamentals; that the sum total of official and unofficial liabilities is massive; that federal discretionary spending and medical expenditures are exploding; that the United States has a history of defaulting on its official debt via inflation; that the government has cut taxes well below the bone; that countries holding U.S. bonds can sell them in a nanosecond; that the financial markets have a long and impressive record of mispricing securities; and that financial implosion is just around the corner…

There are 77 million baby boomers now ranging from age 41 to age 59. All are hoping to collect tens of thousands of dollars in pension and healthcare benefits from the next generation. These claimants aren’t going away. In three years, the oldest boomers will be eligible for early Social Security benefits. In six years, the boomer vanguard will start collecting Medicare. Our nation has done nothing to prepare for this onslaught of obligation. Instead, it has continued to focus on a completely meaningless fiscal metric—“the” federal deficit—censored and studiously ignored long-term fiscal analyses that are scientifically coherent, and dramatically expanded the benefit levels being explicitly or implicitly promised to the baby boomers.

Countries can and do go bankrupt. The United States, with its $65.9 trillion fiscal gap, seems clearly headed down that path. The country needs to stop shooting itself in the foot. It needs to adopt generational accounting as its standard method of budgeting and fiscal analysis, and it needs to adopt fundamental tax, Social Security, and healthcare reforms that will redeem our children’s future.

Read the full piece here.


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