Consequences of doing nothing

Published 7:47 am Sunday, July 26, 2015

By Bill Hammond, CEO, Texas Association of Business

Is our federal government learning anything from Greece?  The answer is probably no, but it should.

We continue to dig ourselves into a deep financial hole that eventually we will not be able to crawl out of.  It may not happen next year or in 10 years, but eventually it will happen if we keep on our current track of spending on programs that are unsustainable in their present form.

Congressional Budget Office projections show government revenue will continue to increase because wages will continue to increase.  That is the good news.  The bad news is that spending will far outpace that rise in revenue, mostly because of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, rising healthcare costs overall and paying debt service on all the money we are borrowing.

The reason these entitlement programs are costing us more is simple: there are more of us becoming of age to collect that money and use the Medicare system.  The Baby Boomers are flooding the system and will continue to do so in greater numbers in the coming years.  That alone should be enough to spur Congress into action, but it isn’t.

One thing about this issue that surprises me is that it is not an issue in the 2016 presidential race.  What is more important than securing a financial future for our children and grandchildren?  That is certainly the personal goal of many parents out there. Shouldn’t it be the same for our government?  Here is a question that every presidential candidate should consider:  If the United States isn’t the world economic and financial leader, how will it lead on any other major world issue?

Our debt, left unchecked, will take over our economy, drown growth and productivity and put us into the same hole that Greece is currently facing.  While it is financially possible to bail out the Greek economy, who would bail out our economy?  I doubt there is any country, or even multiple countries, with the financial power to do that without wrecking their own economies in the process.  And, as we have seen with economic slowdowns in the past in this country, when the American economy suffers, the whole world suffers.

I am a realist; I know Congress will do nothing substantial before the next President takes office in January of 2017, but as soon as that happens, we must start addressing these issues.   None of these decisions will be easy, and there will be pain involved, but the pain will pale in comparison to the economic devastation caused by doing nothing.

First, Congress must cut spending in a big way.  We are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars worth of cuts.  We also must begin to pay down our debt without creating new debt.  How we do that is a decision that Congress and the President must make, but it cannot be put off.

Next, it is time Congress and the President get serious about entitlement reform.  These programs, especially Social Security and Medicare, haven’t been sustainable for years, and they aren’t getting any better with time; they are just getting worse.   We must come up with a way to make these programs financially healthy again.  There are ways to do that, all are controversial and none will be easy.  Whether it is raising the age of eligibility or partial privatization of Social Security or any of the other possible solutions, there will be major fights to do anything.  This, however, is a debate we must have.  People must understand the serious consequences of doing nothing, and that doing nothing is no longer a choice.

Bill Hammond is CEO at Texas Association of Business