It’s ‘Default’ by Any Other Name
November 24, 2012 - 8:03 am
Wall Street Journal columnist Holman Jenkins:
To call Greece First World may be a stretch, but Greece has defaulted once already, and it is only a matter of time until Greece defaults again. Welcome to default-o-rama, the next chapter in the First World’s struggle for fiscal sustainability.
Japan is piling up debt in the manner of a nation beyond hope. France, Belgium, Spain and Italy are defaults waiting to happen unless Europe can somehow generate the kind of growth that has eluded it for decades.
America’s fiscal cliff is an artificial crisis. We have no trouble borrowing in the short term. But at some point the market will demand evidence that long-term balance is being restored. President Obama said in his first post-election press conference that he doesn’t want any proposals that “sock it to the middle class.” He knows better. A long-term socking is exactly what’s coming to the middle class, which must pay for the benefits it consumes.
A few years ago, when the economy was humming, a common estimate held that federal taxes would have to rise 50% immediately to fully fund entitlement programs. Today, a 50% tax increase would be needed just to meet the government’s current spending, never mind its future obligations.
One way or another, then, entitlements will be cut. Don’t call it default. The correct term is entitlement reform.
You saw this day coming and saved for your own retirement. Don’t call it default when Washington inevitably confiscates some of your savings, say, by raising taxes on dividends and capital gains. Taxpayers accept the risk of future tax hikes that may make the decision to save seem foolish in retrospect.
According to economists Robert Novy-Marx and Josh Rauh, state and local taxes would have to increase by $1,385 per household immediately to make good the pension promises to state and local workers, including firefighters and cops. That’s not going to happen given all the other demands on taxpayers. Default, in this case, is the proper word for cities and states using bankruptcy to repudiate their pension obligations.
It gets worse. Jenkins sees the Fed deliberately stoking inflation to pay down the debt in cheaper dollars. And when the crunch comes for Medicare, the president will play off the young against the old as the battle for scarce health care dollars intensifies.
“If cutting subsidies for Big Bird is unthinkable, a joke, how much more so cutting benefits for middle-class voters?” asks Jenkins. The answer is, the joke is on us for believing that our current entitlement culture could be sustained indefinitely.