Even without a debt default, it looks increasingly possible that the world's credit rating agencies will soon downgrade U.S. debt from the AAA standing it has enjoyed for decades.Continue reading.
A downgrade isn't catastrophic because global financial markets decide the creditworthiness of U.S. securities, not Moody's and Standard & Poor's. The good news is that investors still regard Treasury bonds, which carry the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, as a near zero-risk investment. But a downgrade will raise the cost of credit, especially for states and institutions whose debt is pegged to Treasurys. Above all a downgrade is a symbol of fiscal mismanagement and an omen of worse to come if we continue the same habits.
President Obama will deserve much of the blame for the spending blowout of his first two years (see the nearby chart). But the origins of this downgrade go back decades, and so this is a good time to review the policies that brought us to this sad chapter and $14.3 trillion of debt.
FDR began the entitlement era with the New Deal and Social Security, but for decades it remained relatively limited. Spending fell dramatically after the end of World War II and the U.S. debt burden fell rapidly from 100% of GDP. That changed in the mid-1960s with LBJ's Great Society and the dawn of the health-care state. Medicare and Medicaid were launched in 1965 with fairy tale estimates of future costs.
Lyndon Johnson was once my favorite president. I used to be a Democrat, of course. I still admire him for signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but his establishment of the paternalistic entitlement state is almost an unforgivable failure.
More later ...