LESSONS LEARNED #53: “The essence of politics is taking from the many and giving to the few.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 17th, 2011

Good Times Turned into Chronic Deficits and Punishing Debt

Two things have historically made government good at filling its coffers.  The power to tax.  And a growing population.  It’s a simple mathematical equation.  And each year it totals more.  As long as you have a growing population to tax you can sustain government spending for a long time.  All the while putting a little of those taxes aside to take care of you and yours.

Businesses call it economies of scale.  Sell more of a thing and the cost per thing goes down.  If you have $1 million in total costs and sell only 4 things, then each thing will have to sell for $250,000 just to break even.  If you sell 5 million things, then you only have to sell each thing for a nickel to break even.  If you sell more things you can charge less for each thing.  It’s sort of like that with taxes, too.  If you have a growing population (with an expanding birthrate), each succeeding generation will have a lot more tax payers than the previous one.  So a small tax rate on a growing population will continue to increase the amount of tax dollars flowing into the government’s coffers.  And a good time will be had by all.

But right now, the federal government, some states and some cities are struggling to balance their budgets.  Something happened.  What others would have described as the perfect Ponzi scheme became like a real one.  The money paying current benefits became larger than the current contributions.  And good times turned into chronic deficits and punishing debt.  So what happened?

Government Employees Grew 280% from 1946 to 2010

Well, to begin with, some people just got greedy.  They spent a lot of money.  Grew the size of government.  Put more and more people onto the public dole.  At all levels of government.  City.  State.  And federal.  And they based all of this growth on the most hopeful of economic assumptions.  That revenue (i.e., tax receipts) then would continue to grow at the same rate forever and ever.   So they grew government.  Gave themselves very generous pay and benefits.  Pension plans that they could never sustain in the private sector.  Job security.  And other good stuff those in the private sector just don’t get (more holidays, more paid vacation, better healthcare, etc.).  And why not?  They had the power to tax.  And an increasing population.  I mean, what could go wrong?

Well, things change.  Even in government.  In 1946 (about when FDR gave us Social Security), there was approximately 6 million government employees (federal, state and city).  Fast forward to 2010 and that number grew to 23 million.  That’s an increase of 280%.  That’s a huge transfer from the private sector to the public sector.  Which required an enormous amount of additional tax revenue.

Of course, if the population grew at a corresponding rate, then perhaps that growth can be justified.  Maybe they just hired more people to administer a growing population.  It’s either that.  Or they were just expanding the role of government into our lives.  Perhaps a look at some population data will answer that question.

Population Grew 118% and the Birthrate fell 31% from 1946 to 2010

The population in 1946 exceeded 141 million.  In 2010 it exceeded 308 million.  That’s an increase of approximately 118%.  Less than half of the growth rate in government jobs.  So, no, government hasn’t grown larger to keep pace with a growing population.  It has grown larger to expand its role into our lives.

The birthrate in 1946 was 20.4 births per thousand of population.  In 2010 the birthrate fell to 14 births per thousand of population.  That’s a decrease of 31%.  So while the population grew at 118% between 1946 and 2010, the number of births only increased approximately 50% (from 2.8 million to 4.3 million).  In other words, our current birth rate accounts for less than half of our population growth. 

So we have a public sector growing more than twice our population growth.  And we have a birthrate that is less than half of our population growth.  You put these two facts together and what does it tell you?  The growth of taxpayers to fund the public sector is decreasing while the public sector is increasing.  And this can mean only one thing.  Tax rates on the individual have to increase so fewer taxpayers can support more tax consumers (i.e., the public sector).

Payroll Taxes (Social Security and Medicare) Grew 665% from 1946 to 2010

To simplify the discussion, let’s look only at Social Security and Medicare.  In 1946 there was only Social Security.  And the payroll tax was 1%.  In 2010 we have both Social Security and Medicare.  The total payroll tax for these two is 7.65%.  That’s an increase of 665%.  If you earn $30,000 that comes to $2,295 today.  If the tax rate was at the 1946 level it would only be $300.  Giving you an additional $1,995 to spend.  (If you make $65,000, the numbers are $4,972.50, $650 and $4,322.50, respectively.)  Could you use another $1,995?  If you don’t think that’s a lot consider this.  We pay a lot more taxes than just Social Security and Medicare.  You add all of them up and it totals the price of a decent car.  A care that you pay for but never get to drive.

These numbers increased because costs went up at a greater rate than the number of new taxpayers.  Therefore, each individual taxpayer had to pay more.  This is a problem repeated at every level of government.  Government grew and expanded its role.  And its payrolls.  Based on population models used before birth control and abortion.  But then birthrates declined.  In the second half of the 20th century, new babies made up less than half of our new population.  Which explains the government’s earnest desire for blanket amnesty for all illegals in the country.  To make up for that declining birthrate.  And restore the population growth rate to the numbers the actuaries used in all their calculations to fund all that Big Government spending.

As noted, we pay more taxes than just Social Security and Medicare.  And they’re all going up.  For the same reasons.  Government overstepped its bounds.  Spent money under the most ideal assumptions.  And the moment a little reality entered into the economy their house of cards came tumbling down.  The big states and the big cities are all drowning under their public sector obligations.  They have pension obligations that are pushing them towards bankruptcy.  And the federal government has its own problems with Social Security and Medicare.

It’s Spending Cuts or Bust

It was a simple plan.  Tax a little from everyone.  Give generous benefits to the few you need to vote for you.  Live happily ever after.  But they overreached.  Grew government too big.  Just as the population growth rate took a nosedive.  They have raised taxes on the remaining taxpayers in the private sector about as high as they can go.  If they raise them anymore the greatest recession since the Great Depression may very well turn into another Great Depression.  So what to do?

Well, based on that simple mathematical equation, we have but two choices.  Increase the growth rate of the taxpaying population.  Or cut spending.  If we started today raising families of 10 plus kids, it would still take about 20 years (or more) before these new taxpayers start paying taxes.  But we may not have 20 years.  So that leaves the spending cuts.  Even blanket amnesty for illegals won’t help.  Because government spending is a function of the birthrate.  And sustained spending requires a sustained birthrate.  Amnesty won’t give you that.  So it’s spending cuts or bust.  Literally.

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