ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, that the congressional supercommittee has failed to agree on a plan to trim the deficit, it's worth stepping back and asking this fundamental question. How much trouble are we in, anyway? Well, Planet Money's Alex Blumberg says when it comes to an answer, it's actually not hard to find agreement between the left and the right.
ALEX BLUMBERG, BYLINE: First of all, everyone agrees on the basic fact our nation is pretty deep in debt. It owes about $10 trillion.
ALISON FRASER: That's about 70 percent of our economy. Historically, that number has been a little bit under 40 percent since the end of World War II.
BLUMBERG: This is Alison Fraser from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and she would disagree...
This Alison Fraser from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, and she would disagree with policy experts on the left on a bunch of issues having to do with that number. For example, what should the number be? She would like to get it down to 40 or 30 percent of GDP. People on the left would be happy with trimming that number a bit, or just keeping it steady where it is at 70.
Fraser would like to get that number down mainly through spending cuts. People on the left would add raising taxes and closing loopholes to the mix.
But this is not a story about how the left and right disagree with each other. In fact, it's a story about how long-term, big picture, they largely agree. They agree that within a decade or two, if nothing is done, debt is going to be a much bigger problem for our country than it is today.
First, let's hear from the right-leaning Alison Fraser and then Bob Greenstein from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
FRASER: We are on the wave of the leading edge of 78 million baby boomers retiring into entitlement programs. So, going forward, spending in the future is unsustainable.
DR. BOB GREENSTEIN: Over the course of a few decades, the debt would rise to over 100 percent and then over 200 percent of GDP and keep rising. That's not sustainable.
FRASER: You know, it starts with Social Security and then it spreads to Medicare. And the simple fact is wonks like me, on the right, center and left, all agree that these are the programs that need to be cracked.
GREENSTEIN: The two factors are A, the aging of the population; B, the increase in health care costs throughout the entire U.S. health care system. Those two factors are what drive the projected rate of growth in Medicare and Medicaid and, to a much lesser degree, in Social Security.
BLUMBERG: In other words, over the next few decades, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will consume a bigger and bigger share of government spending. If something isn't done, these programs could eventually bankrupt us.
Another thing these two agree about, as things stand right now, our debt is scheduled to grow faster than our economy as a whole will grow. So it's like when you have a credit card balance that increases month after month, our debt is growing year after year.
GREENSTEIN: Over the course of the coming decade we do need to get to the point where the debt isn't rising faster than the economy. Now, if you do enough to get you there in the coming decade, that will not be enough to keep you there in future decades without larger reforms in the health care system.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLUMBERG: Right, so it's the - we do the hard work of getting to that point and then we've got even harder work ahead, which is basically reforming our health care system.
GREENSTEIN: Precisely, that's exactly right. We have a hard work in the coming decade but it will then get even harder. That's exactly right.
BLUMBERG: And this frames the failure of the supercommittee in an especially harsh light. By most accounts, just to get to that first step - stabilizing the growth of the debt, the step before the hard step of figuring out what to do about Medicare - by all accounts, that first step would involve coming up with $4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years; a $4 trillion combination of spending cuts and tax increases.
The supercommittee was discussing a number half to a third that size. In other words, a number that wouldn't have even stopped the debt from growing; a number much smaller than it needed to be and they couldn't even agree on that.
For NPR News, I'm Alex Blumberg.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.