ALFRED E. NEUMAN, that avatar of cheerful unconcern, isn't running for president this year, but he might as well be. The United States is speeding toward a fiscal cataclysm, and the leading presidential candidates treat the subject with a nonchalance worthy of Mad Magazine: What, me worry?
Last week, the Bush administration increased its estimated budget deficit for the coming fiscal year to $482 billion, an all-time high in current dollars. The deficit could climb even higher, White House Budget Director Jim Nussle acknowledged, since the new projection doesn't include the full cost of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan or the potential drop in tax collections if the economy continues to worsen. Meanwhile, the current fiscal year is projected to close with a $389 billion deficit -- less than the $410 billion originally forecast, but substantially higher than last year's final deficit of just under $163 billion.
Unsurprisingly, the political class reacted to the news politically, mostly by upbraiding the Bush administration. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, South Carolina Democrat John Spratt, declared that because of George W. Bush, "the largest surpluses in history have been converted into the largest deficits in history." Spratt's Senate counterpart, Democrat Kent Conrad of North Dakota, predicted that "Bush will be remembered as the most fiscally irresponsible president in our nation's history." Neither mentioned that presidents can only spend money that Congress has appropriated, or noted that their party has had control of Congress for the past 19 months.
The two members of Congress running for president likewise jumped on the bash-Bush bandwagon. The new deficit numbers, said John McCain, are a "striking reminder of the need to reverse the profligate spending that has characterized this administration's fiscal policy." Barack Obama slammed the "reckless" policies that have "busted our budget, wreaked havoc in our economy, and mortgaged our children's future on a mountain of debt."
Bush's failure to curb spending certainly deserves condemnation; as I have repeatedly noted in this space. But what is needed now are presidential candidates prepared to speak seriously about the fiscal crisis that looms ahead. What McCain and Obama -- and we -- should be urgently focused on is not the budget deficit in any given year, but the crushing national debt that all those deficits cumulatively add up to: currently $9.6 trillion, and climbing rapidly. Just paying the interest on that debt will cost the government nearly $250 billion this year, making debt service the fourth-largest item in the federal budget. And since Washington not only has no plan to pay down its debt, but routinely increases it, those interest payments will keep mounting.
Yet the surging cost of interest is nothing compared with the tidal wave of entitlement spending about to crash over us.
This is the year that the first of nearly 80 million baby boomers become eligible for Social Security payments; within three years, they will begin drawing Medicare benefits as well. Those two programs alone already account for one-third of the federal budget -- 42 percent if you add Medicaid, which is also focused largely on the elderly. But in the years ahead, their costs will explode. If nothing changes, the Concord Coalition warns, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt will consume every penny of federal revenues in less than 20 years.
Clearly, things will change. They have to. Either taxes will be hiked to unprecedented levels, or spending - especially on entitlement programs - must be forcefully reined in. There is no other alternative short of continuing to run up the national debt, thereby loading our children with an unconscionable financial burden, and imperiling the entire economy in the process.
But where is the presidential candidate who will talk honestly about this? McCain insists he will balance the budget and "provide the courageous leadership necessary to control spending." Yet his economic plan is devoid of details, offering little more than windy promises to "stop earmarks, pork-barrel spending, and waste" and freeze nondefense discretionary spending for a year while spending programs are reviewed.
Obama won't even go that far. His campaign touts a "Plan for Restoring Fiscal Discipline" that is as vague as McCain's, but he rules out balancing the budget -- "because," he told reporters last month, "I think it is important for us to make some critical investments right now in America's families." The National Taxpayers Union Foundation, tallying the promises made by the presidential candidates, calculates that Obama 's "investments" would cost taxpayers another $344 billion a year. McCain's add up to an extra $68.5 billion.
We are awash in a sea of red ink, and the tide is coming in. Alfred E. Neuman isn't worried. Are Obama and McCain?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)