Perhaps it’s just the waning warmth of summer closing around me like a blanket on a fall day, but I’ve had a feeling lately. Events have conspired to make me think about the long term perspective on what is going on in our world, the bigger picture that I like to think is what I do best. Digging into this feeling with a series of internet searches uncovered a wealth of information that I have to share so that, if nothing else, you can all make your own conclusions about things.
I’ll start with the simplest of these events, the airing of the unusually political “The Crumbling of America” on the History Channel. This show documents how our nation’s infrastructure, particularly in roads, is crumbling for lack of investment. The claim that was made on this show by the American Society of Civil Engineers is that we rate a “D” overall in infrastructure, and a solid $2 Trillion in investment has been neglected. Comparisons were made with the fall of Rome to show how dire it is. Could this be true?
The other event was the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy, the celebration of a man whose career spanned 47 years of upheaval and struggle. It was the passing of an era, certainly, but in his 1980 speech at the Democratic Convention one part struck me as particularly interesting:
We must — We must not surrender — We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family’s health shall never depend on the size of a family’s wealth.
These are both dire warnings about the state of our government today, one made 29 years ago. But are they accurate?
A quick search landed me on the most incredible site for policy wonkerific fun I have ever found – usgovernmentspending.com. If you want data on what we’ve spent at the Federal, State, or Local level for the last zillion years, this is the place to visit. I was resolved to dig out data on spending to see whether the stories I’ve been hearing are, in fact, real issues that explain where we are today and exactly what’s gotten messed up.
I have summarized the data I compiled on a separate Excel spreadsheet, which I can send you if you want. What I with was the 1958 total expenditures, taken from the height of the Interstate Highway project to see if we really are shorting transportation overall since the glory daze of roads. It all has to be adjusted to today, which gives the second table where I multiply it all out by a factor of 31.3 – how our GDP has grown in 50 years. This takes into account inflation, population growth, productivity gains, and everything. Comparing it to the real 2008 budget shows some remarkable things.
In 1958 all levels of government spent 2.4% of GDP on transportation, compared with 1.4% today. That difference is about $117 Billion a year that we’re not keeping up with, combined over all levels of government. That could easily explain the hole that the Civil Engineers claim we’re in with respect to infrastructure, especially if it kept up. But what’s even more interesting is what’s really changed in the budgets over the whole period.
The biggest increase in our overall government budgets in the last 50 years isn’t even pensions, including Social Security, though we like to talk about them a lot. It’s been the amount that governments pour into health care, up 531% to the tune of $765 Billion per year. The next highest is “Protection”, police and fire, which is up 274% for reasons I can’t explain yet. When did Health Care get so out of control?
Enter Sen. Kennedy, who spoke in 1980 about the possibility of it eating our budgets. The second tab shows how correct he was, with Health Care up 112% or a $481 Billion hit to all levels of government had it stayed the same in the same period. 1980 is an interesting turning point in our politics, having been the last time new ideas were brought to bear on the situation. Sen. Kennedy’s warning was largely ignored, but it looks as though he ultimately was proven right. That’s why there is a crisis today.
What does this mean? I’ve said many times that things are really screwed up in this nation right now. We fought a war that killed around 200k people for reasons we don’t understand, and we had an economic downturn that supposed “experts” claim no one saw coming. If things seem a bit whacked, what’s even wackier is how those in charge claim they don’t know how bad it is – and, stranger yet, how this pathetic excuse is accepted by so many people as reasonable.
But with two very specific examples, I was able to find how very powerful people were able to see exactly what was or is coming and what has to be done about it – and they have so far been both ignored. It’s not as though no one knows what is going on, it’s that we are willfully ignoring them – regardless of their positions in Congress or in the media. That’s even more chilling to me.