From "A Short History of the Entitlement State," an editorial in today's Wall Street Journal:
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.
Medicare, the program for the elderly, was supposed to cost $12 billion by 1990 but instead spent $110 billion....In inflation-adjusted dollars, Medicaid cost $4 billion in 1966, $41 billion in 1986 and $243 billion last year. Rather than bending the cost curve down, the government as third-party payer led to a medical price spiral....
According to the most recent government data, today some 50.5 million Americans are on Medicaid, 46.5 million are on Medicare, 52 million on Social Security, five million on SSI, 7.5 million on unemployment insurance, and 44.6 million on food stamps and other nutrition programs. Some 24 million get the earned-income tax credit, a cash income supplement.
By 2010 such payments to individuals were 66% of the federal budget, up from 28% in 1965. (See the second chart.) We now spend $2.1 trillion a year on these redistribution programs, and the 75 million baby boomers are only starting to retire.
In re which, a couple of observations:
The first is that I always used to wince whenever Ronald Reagan would praise FDR, whom he always admired. But Reagan's instinct--that, whereas the country could live with the New Deal, including Social Security, the Great Society was genuinely dangerous--seems to have been entirely correct. Score another one for the Gipper.
The second? That the only really surprising aspect of the downgrade controversy is why Moody's and Standard & Poor's haven't downgraded the federal government already.