It was the most startling of warnings. If the US does not get its finances in order “we will have a European situation on our hands, and possibly worse”, claimed Paul Ryan, the new Republican chairman of the House of Representatives budget committee.
The consequences of not tackling the country’s mounting debt burden would be dire, he last week told an audience of leading budget experts and economists at a gathering in Washington. “We will have the riots in the streets, we will have the defaults, we will have all of those ugliness problems,” he said, referring to “French kids lobbing Molotov cocktails at cars, burning down schools because the retirement age will be moved from 60 to 62”.
As it stands today, the US borrows about 40 cents for every dollar it spends. America’s budget deficit in the year to last September amounted to about $1,300bn – the second highest on record. Over the next several years, as the economic recovery advances and the impact of emergency spending measures taken during the recession start to wane, the country’s deficits are expected to shrink naturally.
But the relief will be temporary: because of the retirement of the baby-boomer generation, which starts in earnest this year, the cost of government healthcare and pension programmes is projected to soar. According to a report issued last month by an 18-member bipartisan commission on fiscal responsibility, by 2025 tax revenues will be sufficient to finance only interest payments – which are projected to soar from their current $200bn a year to more than $1,000bn – and entitlement programmes, with no room for anything else.
“Every other federal government activity – from national defence and homeland security to transportation and energy – will have to be paid for with borrowed money,” it warns. By 2035, rising debt could reduce gross domestic product per capita by as much as 15 per cent. That would imply a harsh reduction in Americans’ standard of living.
This gloomy picture is what could eventually cause a crisis in international capital markets. It is also what drove the commission, led by Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff under Mr Clinton, and Alan Simpson, former Republican senator from Wyoming, to attempt what had rarely been tried before in Washington: to craft a detailed template to solve the country’s budget woes, offering Americans and their lawmakers a concrete glimpse of what it would take to correct the problem.
The plan recommended a total of $3,900bn in deficit reduction by 2020, with a three-to-one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. The commission proposed raising the state pension age, curbing government healthcare and limiting popular tax breaks such as the ability to deduct interest paid on mortgages.
Some potential options to cut the deficit – such as a consumption or value added tax, or a tax on carbon – were sidelined as politically infeasible. That contributed to a surprising level of agreement on the recommendations, with 11 panellists voting in favour of the package, including six sitting lawmakers. Still, this was not enough to force a vote in Congress on the measures, which would have required a 14-member majority.
The failure of the Simpson-Bowles commission to reach the required threshold is what left America’s fiscal fate in the hands of the ordinary political process, from the White House to congressional leaders such as Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate budget committee, as well as Mr Ryan. Turning back to Europe’s debt woes, Mr Ryan declares: “This is not who we are, and this is not the fate that we want to have.”