We have a massive candor gap, led by President Obama but also implicating most leaders of both parties. The annual budget necessarily involves a bewildering blizzard of numbers. But just a few figures capture the essence of our predicament.
First, from 2011 to 2020, the administration projects total federal spending of $45.8 trillion against taxes and receipts of $37.3 trillion. The $8.5 trillion deficit is almost a fifth of spending. In 2020, the gap is $1 trillion, again approaching a fifth: Spending is $5.7 trillion, taxes $4.7 trillion. All amounts assume a full economic recovery; all projections may be optimistic. The message: There's a huge mismatch between Americans' desire for low taxes and high government services.
That last line sums it up: We want lots of government but aren't willing to pay for it.
Second, almost $20 trillion of the $45.8 trillion of spending involves three programs -- Social Security, Medicare (health insurance for those 65 and over) and Medicaid (health insurance for the poor -- two-thirds goes to the elderly and disabled). The message: The budget is mainly a vehicle for transferring income to retirees from workers, who pay most taxes. As more baby boomers retire in the 2020s, deficits would grow.
Third, there is no way to close the massive deficits without big cuts in existing government programs or stupendous tax increases. Suppose we decided to cover all future deficits by raising taxes. Taxes would rise in the 2020s by roughly 50 percent from the average 1970-2009 tax burden.