In the 1978 blockbuster Superman, Lois Lane falls from a rooftop in New York. The late actor Christopher Reeve, decked out in blue tights, swoops down to catch the falling Lane.
"Easy, miss. I've got you," he says with a trademark grin.
"You, you've got me? Who's got you?" replies Lane, looking down over his arms to the pavement below.
We could ask the Lois Lane question of our own government these days. They're stepping in all over the place to dig out banks and save investors. Yet the world's biggest economy is in no shape to write those checks.
In fact, the United States is harrowingly close to the same kind of utter financial collapse that Americans once thought only shaky Latin American regimes could suffer.
The Fannie and Freddie bailouts, monster entitlement programs for retiring baby boomers, Wall Street in flames, and sliding home values are coming to a head at exactly the wrong moment.
The chances we'll be able to muddle through are slimmer every day.
"The earthquake will come via a collapse in the market for U.S. government bonds as domestic and foreign investors realize that the only way Uncle Sam can meet his future spending obligations is to print massive quantities of money," warns Boston University economist Laurence J. Kotlikoff, writing in Fortune.
"The result will be sky-high inflation and interest rates and, most surely, a prolonged reduction in output and employment."
"This could happen today. It could happen tomorrow. But it will happen here just as it has happened in every other country that tried to spend far beyond its ability to pay," he writes.
Exactly. Who's holding up Superman? Us, the taxpayers.
It's far too easy to confuse the shorter-term government deficit, which seems manageable at $407 billion, the latest Congressional Budget Office figures, with the real, larger outlay ahead.
But even that has a sad punchline. Goldman Sachs now says that the short-term number, once you figure in bailouts, military spending, and probable tax-receipt shortfalls, is likely to be $5.3 trillion over the next 10 years.
Nevertheless, the real total debt of the government right now is $70 trillion, Kotlikoff figures. Never mind the personal debts — credit cards, mortgages, cars, and other loans — Americans would face as our economy heads, potentially, into a deep recession.
Compare that figure to the entire U.S. economy, which amounted to $13.8 trillion in total economic output in 2007. Imagine if your personal credit-card debt was five or six times your annual paycheck. Scared yet?
Large-scale bank failures could cost hundreds of billions more, beyond the billions promised so far to save Indymac, Fannie, Freddie, and Bear Stearns. Automakers are begging Congress for cheap loans. Airlines won't be far behind them.
If we keep our promise to the retiring baby boomers, we'll be paying out $4 trillion a year that we don't have for decades, says Kotlikoff.
He figures it would take a payroll tax hike equal to 15 percent of everyone's paycheck, immediately and permanently, to try to fix the problem.
Of course, that would be the equivalent of truck-bombing our consumer-driven economy.
We could just scale back benefits for retirees, right? Don't count on Congress to voluntarily tell tens of millions of elderly voters they're on their own after decades of promising to care for them, even if it bankrupts the nation outright.
Or shut down our military. That doesn't seem likely in a world where Russia feels it can just roll tanks into a neighboring country.
Maybe we could get a second job. Or learn to fly.
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