Everyone knows by now that the US is facing difficult choices. Depending on what assumptions you use, the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare are between $50 and $80 trillion and rising. It really doesn’t matter, as there is no way that much money can be found, given the current system, even under the best of assumptions. Things not only must change, they will change. Either we will make the difficult choices or those changes will be forced by the market. And the longer we put off the difficult choices, the more painful the consequences.
This week we begin a series on the choices facing the US, having covered Europe in the first three letters of the year. In order to make the best of a difficult situation, we need to understand the consequences of the choices we make. “Cut spending,” say some. “Tax the rich,” say others. “Cut out waste and corruption” is always a popular choice. “Do all of the above,” intone others.
There are over 3,000 different tax programs that allow for deductions, as Congress has passed out income tax benefits to almost everyone over the past 100 years. In fact, if we cut out all so-called “tax expenditures” (the deductions we get), the budget would be very close to balanced! But there is some group that sees each one of those tax deductions as vital to the future of the republic. Some are quite big, like charity and mortgage-interest deductions, or agricultural subsidies. Others are small and focused on keeping specific industries competitive and even viable. Your municipal bond interest-rate deduction keeps local funding and borrowing costs low. Local government interest rates would rise dramatically if that was repealed. Some, like the earned-income tax credit, are seen as a way to help out those with less income. All have their beneficiaries.