Monthly Archives: March 2012

What “The Hunger Games” Tells Us About the Media Industry

In my last post, I took a break from policy and politics to discuss some arts and culture, namely The Hunger Games. The basic premise of that post was that The Hunger Games functioned as a self-reflexive look at the media industry, with each character or group of characters fulfilling a specific role in that industry. I did not, however, discuss what I think the film says about that industry.

But before I begin, I should say that, as I write this, I have not yet read the books — only seen the film. I should also say that I do not think reading the book is any sort of prerequisite to discussing or analyzing the film. While films may be based off of novels (and, from what I understand, The Hunger Games was very faithful to its source material), they are an inherently different form of storytelling from their print counterparts. There are stricter time constraints, the need to reach a broader audience in order to make the costlier production financially viable, and the societal/thematic changes occurring between the time the book is published and the movie is made that might affect content, among many other factors.

To the extent that The Hunger Games as a film reflects what is printed in the book, it represents what the film’s creative team (writers, director, cinematographer, producers, actors, etc…) accepted as necessary and proper for a film. These choices (and changes) are often the source of much debate, but the fact remains that they are made, and this analysis will discuss those choices — whether they represent the choice to illustrate the book’s descriptions and narrative or not.

I should also note that while my last post discussed The Hunger Games solely in terms of the filmmaking process, this post will work off of the assumption that it contains a broader ideology regarding the media industry. I do not think this is contradictory. It make sense that a film would be self-reflexive of the film industry, though it might also resonate more broadly.

Consider Watchmen for a moment. The Alan Moore comic book contained a “comic within a comic” in which the narrative would shift to the panels of a comic book titled Tales of the Black Freighter that one of the Moore comic’s side characters was reading. Tales of the Black Freighter, as a comic book, reflected and commented upon the comic book Watchmen and its characters. When translated to film, Tales of the Black Freighter was (in the director’s cut, since it did not make the theatrical edition) remade as an animated “film within a film.”

Unifying the media type in both Watchmen cases reinforced their self-reflexive function, and the messages they contained (though I should note that I believe Watchmen is a prime example of a creative team trying too hard to “remain faithful” to the source material when they should have altered elements for the screen). The Hunger Games functions, I think, in a similar fashion. I assume that the book plays out with visual media as well (and not in, say, newspaper, or other print media) but, again, my analysis is only going to focus on the film.

And, though it may be blasphemous to many fans of The Hunger Games, it seems to me that having the “visual media within a visual media” might be a stronger self-reflexive tool than “visual media within a print media.” This is not to say either is superior — it is just an observation. Besides, the novel, from what I understand, allows a window into Katniss’ mind that film simply cannot, making the two forms quite different (and perhaps further strengthening the ‘visual media as self-reflexive of visual media’ critique because in the film we can no more see into Katniss’ mind than we can into the minds of people in any other film or show).

Additionally, the importance of the media critique to the film is underlined by the filmmakers’ creative choices. First, as noted in the previous post (and touched upon throughout this one as well), The Hunger Games provides a self-reflexive look at the film industry’s participants and their relationships.

But on a more basic level, that the creative team deliberately chose to highlight the role of Panem’s media is a testament to its significance. Unlike novels, which have more leeway in their focus and length, films are limited by runtime, which generally forces the filmmakers to excise elements that they consider unimportant.

Yet the media critique was not excised (nor marginalized), but, rather, figures prominently in the film. Indeed, the primacy of the film’s media ideology is demonstrated by the fact that the very first image the audience sees is Seneca speaking on Caesar’s talkshow. This opening scene immediately orientes the audience as media consumers (and, to take it one step further, as Capitol media consumers), and stresses the importance of media structures to the film.

All that being said, I think The Hunger Games contains three main points regarding the media industry:

  • The “narrativization” of non-fiction
  • The media product is not simply a top-down imposition but, rather, supported and reinforced by many actors
  • The role of violence in the media

The film reinforces, at many points, the importance of creating a narrative for public consumption. Haymitch stresses this to Katniss and Peeta when he describes to them his strategy for staying alive, and later when he advises them to play up their roles as star-crossed lovers. Caesar, likewise, guides the narrative with carefully targeted questions meant to nudge the participants toward a narrative that can be easily consumed by the Capitol audience.

His discussion of Katniss’ sister, Prim, for example, is on one level a question about why Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games, but can also be understood as creating a simple narrative for the Capitol audience. I forget the specifics, but I seem to recall one character (Katniss, perhaps?) commenting on how the situation is more complex than presented and understood by Caesar and the Capitol citizens. Caesar’s discussion of Prim serves to eliminate that complexity in favor of a clear-cut narrative: Katniss wants to win for her sister.

And, of course, the manipulation of the Hunger Games by Seneca is the ultimate narrativization. He consistently tries to sculpt the Games in such a way as affect their outcome and perception. He suspends the ‘single victor’ rule in order to play up the ‘young love’ angle for his audience, then reinstates it to heighten the drama. Then, significantly, he suspends it again when it appears that Katniss and Peeta are about to commit suicide, in order to preserve an acceptable, ‘happy’ ending.

President Snow also recognizes the narrativization when he discusses the dangers that Katniss and Peeta’s ‘young love’ narrative could pose if not strictly controlled. Crucially, he also acknowledges the fact that the entire concept of the Hunger Games is based on the (contained) hope that is produced by the manufactured narrative.

Of course, Katniss and Peeta are young lovers. So how, then, can this narrative be described as “controlled” or “manufactured?” Well, interestingly, the ‘young love’ narrative precedes their development as ‘young lovers.’ That is, the Capitol audiences perceive the two as young lovers long before the two actually fill those roles truthfully (I write “truthfully” because they seem to act the roles for the audience’s benefit before actually falling in love). Yet, those viewing the Games in the Capitol and the Districts seem to take what they are seeing at face value. They accept the narrative that is being produced as true, regardless of its actual veracity.

Also consider that, while the characters vary with what level of control they actually have, the final media product of the Hunger Games is ultimately determined by many, different actors (‘actors’ in the sense of ‘participants,’ not in the theatrical sense). President Snow’s attempts to impose a particular narrative, in the end, fail. Were he the only actor whose decision mattered, the film would have likely ended with Katniss and Peeta dead, and another tribute victorious.

President Snow (described in the last post as the ‘movie executive,’ or here as the media executive) may control the levers of power within an organization (whether Panem or, say, a television station), but there are still certain powerful elements outside his and his subordinate Seneca (directors, news editors, etc…) control. “The facts on the ground” is one such element. Broadcasting the Games live is a barrier to some manipulation. For instance, Seneca could not simply send Peacemakers into the game to shoot Katniss and then release a story that she’d been killed by Cato, because the audience is watching the Games in real time. So, to a certain extent, all actors are bound by events in the Games as they unfold — thus giving Katniss, as a principle actor in these events, some small level of power to affect the perception and outcome of the Games.

Perhaps the most powerful element constraining Snow’s direction of the Games, however, is the audience. Haymitch tells Katniss and Peeta to construct a narrative so that they can attract attention and win over investors. This, of course, is exactly how our media industry functions.

Films are not produced in order to please audiences — they are produced, first and foremost, because of revenue. Films are designed to attract large audiences in order to make money. A person will spend $10 to see The Hunger Games in theaters because they are interested in Katniss and Peeta’s narrative. (Producers and other investors act similarly, though they are distinct because they have the additional incentive of monetary return, whereas audience members are driven mainly by the narrative).

The news side of the media industry, likewise, is sustained by a business model of attracting an audience (despite what many people would like to believe). And here, especially, the narrativization element figures prominently. The news media (particularly the broadcast media, like radio and television, which are limited by airtime) have the difficult task of maintaining audiences in order to keep revenues up and sustain themselves economically. As with films, the news media raise revenue through larger audiences, though usually not through direct charges. Instead, they make money through charging advertisers to air commercials on their channels (or, in the case of print media, printing advertisements in their magazines and newspapers). The larger the audience, the more they can charge advertisers.

Katniss’ friend Gale notes the power that audiences hold when he questions what would happen if everyone simultaneously decided against watching the Hunger Games, depriving them of their power. Yet, as could be expected, large crowds reliably turn out to watch the Games (though Gale is not among them). The Hunger Games (like media products in our own world) has been designed with the specific purpose of holding its audience’s attention.

In order to capture and maintain that larger audience, the news media employ various tactics. They try to be the first to air a particular story, use interesting soundbites, explain things in the simplest possible (and most familiar) terms, and, above all, keep the news interesting.

The result is that the news is often ‘narrativized.’ Delivering the news in a standard narrative format – consisting of a beginning, middle, and an end, and featuring a protagonist, antagonist, and central conflict — allows news organizations to make the news accessible, compelling, and easily digestible, which in turn makes them more attractive to a broader audience.

This does not amount to a vast media conspiracy. Rather, it comes down to a combination of market forces and human nature. It is important to remember that journalists are human, and so inclined to organize and categorize information in ways that make sense to them — and ‘narrativization’ provides an efficient structure for doing so.

By portraying the entire process, however, The Hunger Games critiques this process as both inaccurate and ultimately affecting the covered subject. Caesar may never physically leave his stage (though, interestingly, he does jarringly appear in the Games during Katniss’ hallucination), and the audience may imagine they are not affecting the outcome of the Games by simply watching, but both are a critical part of the media process. Both contribute to the creation of a narrative (which, as noted in the case of the Katniss-Peeta relationship, becomes reality), and affect how the Games actually play out. The narrative fuels greater media coverage, which attracts investors to intervene in the Games, sending Katniss aid packages.

Thus, when applied to the news side of the industry, The Hunger Games rejects the idea of an independent, objective media, and instead recognizes a blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Indeed, The Hunger Games’ author, Suzanne Collins, has said that this very idea was present when she first started developing the story, describing an experience in which news images of the Iraq War “fused” with those of a reality television show.

In an interview with Scholastic, Collins says that “The Hunger Games is a reality television program.” Of course, such shows are the ultimate ‘narrativization’ of supposedly nonfiction events.

Violence also plays a prominent role in The Hunger Games’ media critique. The aforementioned market forces that direct news sources to cover stories in a certain way also direct them to cover certain stories. Stories that will draw a larger audience are generally preferred.

This leads to a preference for violent stories for several reasons. First, the intense emotions that are aroused by covering a violent story often have the desired effect of ‘capturing’ many viewers. But also, such stories are often easier to plug into the narrative structure — the conflict, the protagonist (victim), and the antagonist (offender) are all already there. Furthermore, violent stories (such as murder, rape, etc…) are fairly universal, and thus easily grasped by an audience without much of a need for in-depth background and context. The ability to simply jump to emotional soundbites of family and friends without additional explanation and context can be very appealing for a news organization that needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers with limited airtime.

The use of violence in fictional stories functions in a similar fashion (though, again, the idea behind The Hunger Games is that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is fairly permeable).

The Hunger Games seeks to remind us of the horrible reality behind these violent acts. A key moment occurs when Haymitch notices a young Capitol child chasing his sister with a toy sword. The boy, mimicking the Hunger Games he watches on television, is eerily reminiscent of any average child today, playing soldier with toy guns.

Capitol citizens’ general attitudes toward the Hunger Games also indicate desensitization to extreme violence. The media coverage generally focuses on the tributes’ strength, background, and narratives, and eschews any discussion of their imminent and horrific deaths.

In the opening scene, Seneca describes the Hunger Games to Caesar as tradition, which calls to mind horrific real world acts that have been defended as ’traditions,’ such as the practice of widows burning on their dead husband’s funeral pyre. To unveil the harsh reality behind this desensitization, the scene with Seneca talking to Caesar ends jarringly in mid-discussion with a scream, and a cut to District 12, where Katniss is comforting her sister, Prim. The talk of tradition is revealed as empty when confronted with the suffering that the Hunger Games really cause.

In deconstructing the interplay of  ’narrativization,’ violence, and market forces in the media industry, The Hunger Games further blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps that is the most interesting point of all – for all its fantastical elements, The Hunger Games nevertheless provides an accurate and relevant description of how the media industry functions today.

The Hunger Games does not just tell us a story, it tells us a bit about ourselves and our world.


“The Hunger Games” As Moviegoing Experience

(Warning! This post may contain spoilers for “The Hunger Games.” Proceed with caution.)

It was about halfway through watching the film adaptation of The Hunger Games that I realized just how much of a hypocrite I was.

The movie had been so engrossing that I hadn’t even realized that the filmmakers were employing some of the oldest storytelling sleights of hand. The Capitol citizens, for instance, were designed to look as alien to our culture as possible, in garish costumes and makeup, while the District’s residents are depicted as much more familiar. The latter’s clothing and general appearance, while plain, is neither outlandish nor exotic. The effect is that the audience easily identifies with the oppressed peoples of the Districts (and our protagonist, Katniss) while reviling the strange, foreign Capitol citizens.

As a quick aside, I should mention this post will not be a discussion of the politics or economics of The Hunger Games (though you could find an excellent piece about all that on Slate) — instead, it will be about The Hunger Games as self-reflexive of the moviegoing experience.

Now back to the hypocrisy. Slipping into quick identification with and sympathy for Katniss led naturally to contempt for her Capitol rulers and, especially, the glee with which they reveled in the Hunger Games, despite never having to actually participate themselves. This, of course, doubles perfectly as a description of myself, or any other member of the audience.

The Hunger Games serves the same purpose as the Hunger Games. Or, put another way, moviegoing audiences pay their $10 to laugh and cry at the expense of the characters on the screen in the same way that the Capitol citizens seek emotional stimulation through watching the Games, under Caesar’s guiding commentary. The connection is made even more blatant when Haymitch carefully explains to Katniss and Peeta that the Hunger Games are really just an elaborate show, and advises them on ways to improve their narrative, in order to get their audience emotionally attached to them — and also to attract investors.

In that way, perhaps, the cynical, alcoholic Haymitch stands in for the much-maligned movie critic, both critiquing ‘weak’ films and praising ‘strong’ ones.

If the audience are the Capitol citizens, Haymitch is the film critic, and the Katniss and her District comrades are movies’ hapless characters, caught up in circumstances wholly beyond their control, then the filmmakers are those in the Hunger Games’ control room. Visually, this team is more reminiscent of the District peoples than the Capitol citizens (they are not done up with whacky, neon-colored hairdos, for instance), but their dress is still sufficiently sterile and foreign to signify that they are not quite familiar either.

They exist between the characters (District peoples) and the audience (Capitol citizens), and their actions ultimately control the outcome of the Hunger Games. The fire chases Katniss toward her hunters, the hounds eliminate remaining tributes. Katniss even describes the arrival of the hounds as the “finale,” signaling the film’s climax.

Within this paradigm of The Hunger Games as moviegoing experience, Seneca represents the film’s director. His style marks him as a member of the Capitol, but his role as Gamemaker also associates him with the control room. The people designing the arena’s deadly obstacles (such as the hounds) look to Seneca for approval, and he gives them his guidance and approval, as well as keeping a close eye on the narrative structure of the story (such as suspending, reinstating, and then suspending again the single-victor rule). I suppose that then makes President Snow the dreaded movie executive, with the ultimate power to decide which scripts are eventually made into films and, thus, are allowed to make their way into the popular consciousness. For Seneca’s failure to deliver Snow’s preferred outcome, Seneca is delivered a bowl of poisoned fruit — the poetic equivalent of the old phrase, “You’ll never work in this town again.”

Furthermore, the film continually reminds us that the tributes are being taped, even as they themselves forget it. The cameras are ubiquitous, in the wilderness, in the trees. The Games are intercut with scenes of people watching the tributes on screens all over the nation. Drawing attention to the spectator aspect of the Games reinforces the idea of The Hunger Games as self-reflexive. And, perhaps it was just my imagination, but when Cato at the end threatens to take Peeta down with him and says something along the lines of “I’ll do it, you know,” it seemed to me that he was looking at the camera as he said it, as if speaking directly to the audience.

Cato’s confusion is also striking. In the end, he finally realizes that he has absolutely no control over his life. As a career tribute, Cato was trained from birth to be a killing machine; as a character in a film, Cato was manipulated into performing horrific acts as one of the film’s antagonists. Indeed, all of the film’s characters were designed for the specific purposes of eliciting an emotional response from the audience — notably Rue, the small girl whose death is orchestrated so that we might sympathize with Katniss’ loss and isolation.

This realization makes Cato’s brief moment of self-awareness all the more tragic, as he recognizes the powerlessness of his role and then proceeds to accede to it.

It is that acceptance, of course, that separates Cato from the our protagonist, Katniss, who rebels against the Game’s rules and emerges victorious, albeit having gravely crossed President Snow in the process. Yet this is of little immediate consequence (though it will surely play into the main conflict of the sequels), as the audience can, for now, thrill to the protagonist’s ultimate victory — just as the filmmakers intended.

The Trouble With Voter ID Laws

When it comes to civics, few things are more frightening than the idea that shadowy forces are subverting our elections. Americans, as citizens of a Democratic Republic, stake the legitimacy of their governments and representatives upon the will of the majority (or, in some cases, plurality). And while there may be political differences, most Americans would agree upon the sanctity of free and fair elections.

Therein lies the danger of voter identification legislation: these types of bills capitalize on fears of shadowy forces undermining the integrity of our democracy to then undermine the integrity of our democracy.

As I noted in a previous post, voter fraud is incredibly rare. The Bush Department of Justice made it a priority to vigorously prosecute voter fraud, and between 2002 and 2007 made only 86 convictions (many of which were residents who simply mistakenly believed they were eligible to vote). This, over a period of time in which 196,139,871 ballots were cast in federal elections.

As the Brennan Center notes, you are statistically more likely to be struck by lightening than you are to commit voter fraud.

Keep in mind the 86 convictions (which, as noted above, includes many cases that boil down to simple misunderstanding of eligibility rules) refer to the broader category of voter fraud. Voter ID bills, on the other hand, are aimed only at one, very specific form of voter fraud: voter impersonation. This latter form occurs only when a person tries to vote as someone that they are not.

So, the incredibly low number of 86 convictions nationwide is actually too high of a number when discussing the specific form of voter fraud that Voter ID bills would actually address.

But why is voter impersonation extremely rare? I handled this in an earlier blog post, but the short version is because the risks of committing voter impersonation fraud hugely outweigh the benefits. Voter fraud can carry penalties of up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine for a benefit of a handful of extra votes in an election that will likely be decided by thousands.

The larger question is, why are legislatures pursuing costly new Voter ID laws (Pennsylvania’s is projected to cost between $4 million and $11 million)? The Economist explains this phenomenon fairly well:

[T]echnology and the presence of outside observers is complicating the election-rigging business, requiring dodgy politicians to work harder and more cleverly. Most manipulators make only sparing use of blatant election-day frauds, says Sarah Birch of the University of Essex. She compared observer reports of 136 elections held between 1995 and 2006 and found that a more frequent tactic is to alter election laws, often as a means of deterring opposition candidates or gerrymandering unlosable constituencies.

Or, in this case, as a means of deterring opposition voters.

Governor Corbett’s administration has contended that 99 percent of Pennsylvanians have the appropriate form of voter identification. But this statistic is fundamentally flawed. The 99 percent figure was arrived upon by the administration by taking the number of photo IDs the PA Department of Transportation has issued divided by the voting age population.

The obvious issue with this is that not everyone that has been issued an identification by PennDOT is eligible to vote. Among them are: people who are under 18, people who have since died, people who are not citizens, or people who have since moved. By artificially inflating the number of photo IDs that have been issued, this measure artificially inflates the number of people that are estimated to have the identification needed to vote.

While state figures are hard to come by, 11 percent of all Americans lack valid photo identification. And these Americans are not random — particular groups of voting age citizens would be disproportionately affected by Voter ID laws, including:

  • 25 percent of voting age African Americans
  • 15 percent of people making below $35,000/year
  • 18 percent of senior citizens
  • 20 percent of young voters (18-29 years old)

One would also imagine other groups that there are not yet photo ID statistics on (such as handicapped populations) might also not have the identification these Voter ID laws demand.

Of course, it is no coincidence that, in general, these groups of people tend to vote Democratic, and that Voter ID laws have been passed on in states controlled by Republicans.

That this is a targeted disenfranchisement is reinforced by state laws on acceptable forms of identification. For instance, Texas’ photo ID law appears to be designed to disenfranchise certain types of citizens (fortunately, it was blocked by the U.S. Department of Justice). Current Texan law allows various ways to prove your identity without needing a specific form of photo identification. The revised law, however, provides for only government-issued photo identification, which disproportionately affects the aforementioned groups of people. Licenses to carry concealed handguns are permissible, of course, while student IDs are not.

In Pennsylvania, the original version of the Voter ID law allowed only government-issued ID, though the definition of acceptable identification was loosened up slightly before final passage. The final bill claims valid student identification and IDs issued by care facilities (like assisted living communities, nursing homes, etc…) are acceptable. Yet caveats abound. Many elderly people who are likely without photo ID do not live in care facilities. And the law specifies that only student IDs from Pennsylvania universities are permissible. Furthermore, these forms of identification are only valid if they are not expired, but many student IDs, for example, have no listed expiration date.

The fact that these laws are not truly about safeguarding elections is further reinforced by Wisconsin’s experience. After passing a strict voter ID law, Governor Scott Walker moved to close down 10 DMV offices where photo identifications could be secured. This was done under the guise of economics — the money needed to implement this Voter ID law must come from somewhere, after all. Longer DMV office hours, increased demand for the necessary documentation (ex: birth certificates), the cost of providing these identifications, all have associated costs. But it certainly seems odd that the revenue for extending DMV office hours would come from closing other DMV offices, restricting the number of available locations for obtaining the identification needed to vote. Fortunately, the Wisconsin courts have recently struck down this Voter ID law as unconstitutional.

Likewise, in Pennsylvania, amendments that would have at least sought to blunt the impact of this bill were voted down by the majority Republicans. Such rejected amendments included:

  • Extended DMV hours
  • More locations at which to secure a Voter ID
  • Mobile units to help people register

It is similarly curious that Governor Corbett, who has followed a strict rule of cutting state spending at all costs, both endorsed and signed this Voter ID legislation. Despite drastic cuts in eduction investment, Governor Corbett nevertheless found it appropriate to spend between $4 million and $11 million to combat the non-existent threat of voter fraud, where simple enforcement of existing law would suffice.

The reason for this is that the bill was never about voter fraud to begin with — it was about rewriting the rules to favor the majority party. This is not an isolated incident. Other election law changes dominated Pennsylvania Republicans’ 2011 legislative agenda, from redistricting PA Senate and PA House districts into gerrymandered ‘safe seats’ to rewriting the way Pennsylvania would distribute its electoral votes for president.

The courts may yet strike this Voter ID law down — and they would be correct in doing so. The costs of obtaining a Voter ID are tantamount to a de facto poll tax (such fees were outlawed by the 24th Amendment). Advocates claim that the IDs are free, but that ignores the costs of obtaining the underlying documentation (such as the fee for replacing a lost birth certificate or the transportation costs), as well as the huge barriers of wading through the added bureaucracy (Pennsylvanians without photo ID must take additional steps to get another copy of their birth certificate). Securing the documentation needed to get a Voter ID will take time, especially now, as funding and personnel for government agencies handling such services are cut.

Furthermore, some voters may actually be eligible to vote, only to be disenfranchised in the days or weeks just before an election, if their license is suspended. Young people, especially, are at risk for this, as any instance of underage drinking (whether it involves a vehicle or not) results in a license suspension and now, disenfranchisement. Believing that underage drinking is unacceptable is one thing, stripping someone of the right to vote because of they consumed alcohol before turning 21 is another entirely.

Voting is a right, and playing politics with election law in order to gain an advantage at the ballot box has no place in a modern democracy. Democratically elected governments do not always make the right choices, but they can at least claim legitimacy of broad elections. Restricting that legitimacy would be an egregious error indeed.


The Baby Boom and Bust: Demographics and American Entitlements

“The Social Security program plays an important part in providing for families, children, and older persons in times of stress. But it cannot remain static. Changes in our population, in our working habits, and in our standard of living require constant revision.”

No, this quote is not from 2012 (although one could certainly imagine a contemporary politician calling for Social Security reform with these words). Rather, this is an excerpt from President Kennedy’s signing statement for the Social Security Amendments of 1961. That particular bill amended the Social Security law to, as the Social Security Administration describes, “permit male workers to elect early retirement age 62; to increase minimum benefits payable; to liberalize the benefit payments to aged widow, widower, or surviving dependent parent; and to liberalize the retirement test and eligibility requirements.” (A more detailed description of the bill is also available on the SSA’s website.)

Oh how things have changed.

When President Kennedy signed that bill in 1961, federal spending was at about 18.4 percent of GDP, with a deficit of -0.6 percent. Last year (2011), federal spending was 24.1 percent of GDP, with a deficit of -8.7 percent.

Of course, it is important to recognize that the 2011 budget levels are also the result of the Great Recession. Plummeting tax receipts (as a result of a rapid contraction in GDP and a slow subsequent recovery) and the efforts of the government to stop the freefalling economy (large tax cuts and stimulus packages) resulted in a much bigger deficit. Yet throughout the 2000s (but before the recession began in December 2007), federal spending accounted for around 19 to 20 percent of GDP, with deficits ranging from -1.2 percent (at the low end) to -3.5 percent (at the high end).

In contrast 1961 was the first year in the second longest economic expansion in U.S. history, which lasted from February 1961 to December 1969.

So part of the deficit is cyclical, meaning that it is due to the effects of the economic cycle. The economy in 1961 was expanding, providing more revenues for the government, while the economy of late has been slowly recovering from a complete financial meltdown and high unemployment that has seen tax revenues fall precipitously. The government, by maintaining spending levels, prevented an even larger fall, but also ran up high debts that will need to be paid off once the economic recovery is less fragile. Cyclical deficits are thus temporary. The stimulus package, at around $1 trillion, has been a main contributor to our cyclical deficit. It helped sustain spending at all levels of government, but only in the short term. Once the money appropriated it for it is used up, that’s it. It will not continue creating deficits indefinitely.

Even so, part of the deficit is structural. Unlike cyclical deficits, structural ones will exist whether the economy is expanding or contracting. That is, it is not dependent on the economic cycle. The main structural elements in our current deficit are the Bush tax cuts and entitlement spending. Because the Bush tax cuts were not offset by spending cuts, but rather by spending increases, the debt and deficit ballooned. Indeed, the Bush cuts were accompanied by a huge increase in military spending because of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, as well as the enactment of an expensive prescription drug entitlement that U.S. Comptroller David Walker called “the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s.”

So the structural portion of our deficit is mainly characterized by strong demand for services and weak desire to actually pay for them. Legislators usually face little personal downside to enacting politically popular programs (like Bush’s Medicare expansion), but strong opposition in funding them (which occurs through taxes). The result is that new programs are funded mainly through higher debt. Furthermore, since the Republican Party has effectively abandoned its dedication to balanced budgets in favor of tax cuts at all costs, funding for these programs has actually decreased. The result is an untenable fiscal situation in which high demand for government services is met, but the services are funded through debt.

Now that we’ve established all that, let’s return to Social Security and Medicare.

Social Security, when Kennedy signed the Social Security Amendments of 1961, was about 12.8 percent of all federal outlays and about 2.35 percent of GDP. By last year (2011), those portions had risen to 20.3 percent of federal spending and 4.89 percent — and it is continuing to climb. Medicare is likewise growing at a fairly rapid pace. In 1967 (the year after it was first implemented), Medicare spending was 1.7 percent of the federal budget. In 2011, it was 13.5 percent of the federal budget and 3.25 percent of GDP.

These two programs make up a very large part of the federal government, and they are only set to grow in the future. Why? Well, both are entitlement programs, which means that anyone can claim benefits as long as they meet criteria laid out in the law. The main criteria for both of these particular programs is age. Social Security and Medicare provide pensions and health insurance for elderly Americans, respectively.

Like any government program, these two are funded through taxes, which are taken from American workers. The larger the pool of workers, the greater the economic activity, and the higher the tax revenue. The smaller the pool of retirees and the later people retire, the lower the benefit payments.

The baby boom that followed World War II provided the American economy with a large pool of workers, which boosted the American economy. As the Economist succinctly describes:

Basically, economic growth comes from having more workers, making them more productive or a combination of the two. If a country has fewer workers, productivity has to do all the work, and even then real growth is likely to be slow.

In 1965, a few years after Kennedy expanded Social Security coverage, there were about 4 workers to every 1 retired beneficiary. That had fallen to about 2.9 workers per each beneficiary in 2010, and will fall even further as the baby boomers begin retiring in larger numbers. The elderly population (over 65) will increase by about a third over the next decade. (Though, as an aside, this lower population growth still puts the U.S. ahead of many European nations, which will have to deal with the combination of more drastic population declines and more generous government programs.) At the same time, people are living longer, which increasing the amount of benefits that must be paid out.

Something has to give. Either the future holds higher taxes on a worker population that is shrinking relative to beneficiaries, or retirees will have to take a benefits cut to maintain the current taxation levels, or some combination of the two. Consider also that the growth of Social Security and Medicare as portions of the entire federal government have implications for other government services, as well. The more resources it dedicates toward these two programs, the less it can dedicate to others (like defense). Keep in mind that raising revenue through higher taxes is always very difficult politically and that existing law mandates that Social Security and Medicare benefits must be paid out to those that qualify. So, even if the dedicated payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare fail to cover the program’s expenses, the government must continue to pay out benefits, or change the law.

Of course, both programs are quite popular among Americans (especially among older Americans, who voter often), which makes it very difficult to simply ‘change the law.’ Nevertheless, the graying of America’s population and longer life expectancies necessitate reforms that combine slower benefits growth with greater revenue. Increasing retirement and eligibility ages, paring back benefit increases, and raising new revenue will be the order of the day. Americans should take a serious look at policies to deal with these fiscal realities, like linking Social Security payment increases to the price index instead of the wage index, increasing cost-sharing in Medicare, raising new taxes (perhaps by allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire) and eliminating tax expenditures and deductions (like that for mortgage interest).

None of this will be easy. Debate over how to amend Social Security and Medicare will be heated. But better to have that debate now and on our own terms than to ignore it until the effects of a graying population and the bond markets force it upon us.