The Government Debt Iceberg

UK faces crippling tax rises to pay for ageing population

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Summary:

·       Europe and the United States will soon begin to encounter fiscal constraints the like of which we have never seen before. Federal debt as a percentage of GDP more than doubled between 2000 and 2012. According to the US Congressional Budget Office, total national debt is expected to remain close to 100 per cent of GDP during the next decade and begin to increase thereafter as the baby-boomers fully enter retirement.

·       Debt levels in European Union countries have surged similarly, from 60 per cent of national income during the mid 2000s to 85 per cent of national income today. 
• An ageing population alone does not create greater government indebtedness as long as each generation sets aside adequate funds to meet their own future pensions and health-care costs. Instead of adopting such pre-funded retirement support systems, however, Western governments have developed unfunded social insurance programmes where retiree benefits are paid for from the taxes of the working-age population. This means that an ageing population leads to 
rising expenditures that cannot be covered without increasing taxes on the young. Politicians have known about population ageing for around 50 years but ignored the problems it will create for public finances.

·       Figures for accumulated debt are backward looking, reflecting past deficits; they do not take into accountthe promises that governments have made in relation to future commitments. No private sector firm would be able to present accounts in this way.

·       If we include commitments that have been made under Social Security and health-care programmes, the US fiscal imbalance is 9 per cent of the estimated present value of future US GDP. This means that an additional 9 per cent of GDP in tax revenues, over and above existing taxes, would have to be levied each year to ensure that all US government spending commitments could be met from taxation. Closing the fiscal gap between expected tax revenues and spending would involve more than doubling federal payroll taxes, assuming that such a rise is economically feasible.

·       Under the most realistic assumptions regarding future policy, the US fiscal imbalance is about seven times the total national debt held by the public. In other words, if current unfunded spending commitments 
to future generations of older people are included, the underlying national indebtedness of the US government is seven times the published figure.

·       Over two-thirds of government spending commitments not covered by current tax plans is attributable to two major programmes: Social Security and Medicare. These programmes have been hugely expanded in recent years. 


·      All the fiscal metrics used by EU countries, for example, in the euro zone’s stability and growth pact, are backward-looking measures of accumulated debt; as such, published debt measures understate trueindebtedness.

·       The underlyin