One of the telltale signs of the somnolent mainstream media is its inattention to the nation’s fiscal situation. Throughout the Clinton years, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page would raise the siren call of irresponsible spending and excess taxation, and broadcast media often followed suit. Now economic historians view this period as one of remarkably responsible fiscal stewardship – in which an impressive treasury surplus was built up and plans laid to bring down the historical deficit.
But those sirens went mute immediately upon the inauguration of George W. Bush. During his misadministration, staggering debt has been built up, and wasteful spending has far outstripped anything Washington has ever seen before. The era of Bush has been a revisiting of the Gilded Age – the era described by Mark Twain in his piece of that name from 1873, a mass of pretense, excess and corruption bent on the extirpation of everything that was ever decent about our country. The Bush era is marked by spending like a drunken sailor, as one of Congress’ few remaining fiscal conservatives – John McCain – likes to say, profiteering from it through earmarks and then covering it all up and lying to the public about the cost and consequences.
In today’s USA Today, Dennis Cauchon takes a look at the Bush budget process and lays out some very unpleasant truths.
The federal government recorded a $1.3 trillion loss last year — far more than the official $248 billion deficit — when corporate-style accounting standards are used, a USA TODAY analysis shows. The loss reflects a continued deterioration in the finances of Social Security and government retirement programs for civil servants and military personnel. The loss — equal to $11,434 per household — is more than Americans paid in income taxes in 2006. “We’re on an unsustainable path and doing a great disservice to future generations,” says Chris Chocola, a former Republican member of Congress from Indiana and corporate chief executive who is pushing for more accurate federal accounting…
Taxpayers are now on the hook for a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, a 2.3% increase from 2006. That amount is equal to $516,348 for every U.S. household. By comparison, U.S. households owe an average of $112,043 for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and all other debt combined. Unfunded promises made for Medicare, Social Security and federal retirement programs account for 85% of taxpayer liabilities. State and local government retirement plans account for much of the rest. This hidden debt is the amount taxpayers would have to pay immediately to cover government’s financial obligations. Like a mortgage, it will cost more to repay the debt over time. Every U.S. household would have to pay about $31,000 a year to do so in 75 years.
Who’s to blame? A president and vice president who inhabit an alternate universe. Remember that when Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill raised the issue of deficit spending in the first cabinet meeting following the 2002 midterm elections, he was slapped down by Dick Cheney. “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the midterm elections, this is our due,” Cheney said. In his interview with Ron Suskind, O’Neill offered this distinction between his service in the Ford era and the age of George W. Bush: “The biggest difference between then and now is that our group was mostly about evidence and analysis, and Karl [Rove], Dick [Cheney], Karen [Hughes] and the gang seemed to be mostly about politics. It’s a huge distinction.”
The Bush 43 team is about short-term political gain. Full stop. Their indifference to the suffering they will leave behind, to their squandering of a nation’s patrimony, is unprecedented in American history. But not, evidently, much of a subject to trouble our pliant media.