With the selection of Paul Ryan as the Republican vice presidential candidate, it is clear that the central issue in the presidential election will be the scale and scope of government involvement in the economy. There is disagreement over what constituted “normal” levels of spending in the past and, indeed, over what constitutes “spending.” But there is a widespread view in both parties that it is feasible and desirable that in the future the federal government should be no larger as a share of the overall economy than it has been historically.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be achieved. For structural reasons, even preserving the amount of government functions that predated the financial crisis will require substantial increases in the share of the U.S. economy devoted to the public sector.
First, demographic change will greatly expand federal outlays unless politicians decide to degrade the level of protection traditionally provided to the elderly. Between Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and some smaller programs about 32 percent of the federal budget, or about 7.7 percent of gross domestic product, is devoted to supporting those over 65. The ratio of this age group to those of working age will rise from 1 for every 4.6 workers to 1 for every 2.7 over the next generation. If no other adjustments are made, this implies an increase in federal spending of 5.6 percentage points of GDP. As Americans’ health and life expectancy improve, it may be appropriate to revise upward the assumed retirement age. That would, however, be unlikely to counteract the expected 34 percent increase in the share of the population over the next generation who will be within 15 years of estimated life expectancy.