Zakaria: How to Solve America's Debt Problem

Everyone seems to be pessimistic about America these days. In poll after poll, Americans worry about their future. Pundits, myself included, write despairingly about the monumental challenges we face. Academics plan seminars on America's decline.

So, perhaps more to cheer myself up than anything else, I decided to ask what it would take to fix the U.S. There is one problem that overshadows all else. Washington is taking on debt burdens that are huge and, as the baby boomers retire, look truly frightening. The Peterson Institute estimates that the U.S. government's programs for Social Security and health care are al-ready $43 trillion in the hole. To cover this, the government would have to eliminate virtually all other spending and/or jack up tax rates into the 70 percent range. Foreigners would almost certainly demand higher interest rates if they lent money to the United States. And if we raised interest rates, the economy would stagnate—making the debt burden even more onerous.

So, this problem looks unavoidable, but also insoluble. Remember, though, that America has a $14 trillion economy that was, until recently, growing quite fast. We can find ways to address even this challenge. Here are three simple proposals that would defuse the debt bomb, with money to spare:

First, adopt a value-added tax. More than 100 countries have some kind of a national sales tax. If America were to enact one tomorrow, at something like the average for industrial countries (18 percent), and drop income-tax rates to compensate somewhat, we could bring in hundreds of billions of dollars every year. To get a sense of the revenue potential, imagine if the United States were to adopt a VAT at the high end of the range—25 percent, similar to that of many Scandinavian countries whose economies have still grown as fast as America's over the last three decades. Such a tax, Leonard Burman calculates in the University of Virginia Tax Review, would bring in enough money to balance the federal budget, pay for health-care expansion, eliminate the income tax for all those earning less than $100,000 (90 percent of households), and cut the top tax rate to 25 percent. The tax would also restrain Americans from over--consuming and reward them for saving, the single most important long-term shift we need to encourage.

Second, end the massive, distorting subsidies for home-ownership, health care, and agriculture. These three subsidies together cost the federal government about $250 billion a year. All of them encourage behavior that is bad for the economy. The interest deduction on mortgage has encouraged the massive accumulation of debt that is at the heart of the current crisis. (No, it does not encourage homeownership. Neither Canada nor Britain has the subsidy, and both have slightly higher rates of home-owner-ship than we do.) Tax exemptions for employer-based health plans encourage overconsumption of health services—a point on which economists from both left and right agree. Agricultural subsidies, mostly handouts to large agribusinesses, are so egregious and market-distorting, one doesn't really know where to begin.

Finally, make sensible adjustments to entitlements. The most important fix is to tie benefits to rises in inflation, not wages, a seemingly technical matter, but one that could save the government hundreds of billions of dollars. Then raise the retirement age by a couple of years, and link it to life expectancy, which increases by three months every year. This is not impossible. Germany just raised its retirement age to 67. In fact, many European countries have fixed their pension systems so that they will be solvent for decades, even longer.

Each of these policies could be phased in so that the timing is right. They could be pared back, especially if other savings and reforms are enacted. (Currently, tax breaks and deductions cost the government $1.1 trillion a year.) But just these three fixes would place the United States on a firm fiscal footing, leaving it with ample resources to invest in research, education, infrastructure, alternative energy, and whatever else we want.

I know, I know—it's the politics that makes this look hard. I understand how impossible it is for Congress to impose even a little pain, despite general agreement that we are in a severe crisis. But as we sink, let's not pretend that our problems are insurmountable. The solutions are out there in plain sight.