Editor's Note: At a time when our national debt is at a frightening level, our illustrious Congress is debating whether to extend the Bush tax cuts for millionaires, as well as for the middle class. It’s like walking through the looking glass. What would it take to get us to decide we ought to fund our own expenses now, rather than putting them on our credit card for our children and grandchildren to inherit? My guess is there isn’t anything that could happen to make us behave like adults. Are we really that selfish and short-sighted? The next year or so should answer that question.
A recent report listed the U.S. as one of the world’s most obese nations, which helps explain why we’re also one of the most indebted. Weight loss requires sacrifices — fewer calories and more exercise — as does deficit reduction, which demands less spending and enhanced revenue (higher taxes).
The president’s bipartisan deficit commission recently released recommendations for trimming our $1 trillion plus annual shortfall; however, both co-chairmen acknowledged their plan’s unpopularity. According to Republican Alan Simpson, “We’ll be in a witness protection program when this is all over.” Democrat Erskine Bowles said, “We’re not asking anyone to vote for this plan.”
Any efficacious deficit reduction program will be inconvenient and unpleasant. Spoiled by the attitude that our progeny should pay for our profligacy, Americans can’t stomach self-restraint, and are even more resentful of having discipline imposed. We want to be told we can eat ice cream all day, never exercise and still look like David Beckham.
The patron saint of binge economics is Ronald Reagan, who proposed spending more and taxing less to balance the budget — a fad diet his primary opponent George H.W. Bush described as “voodoo economics.” Bush was proved right, but Reagan became a two-term president by telling us what we wanted to hear.
In 1984, Walter Mondale helped sink his own campaign by suggesting higher taxes might be needed to reduce the huge Reagan deficits. In 1992, the first President Bush broke his “read my lips” pledge of “no new taxes” for the same reason and lost his re-election bid.
Ross Perot sounded an alarm on deficits, but, ultimately, it was a just a speed bump. Conservative presidential aspirants such as Patrick Buchanan demagogued the issue. When asked on the stump how he’d cut spending, Pat always drew cheers by saying he’d start with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). It was red meat for the Right, but touting such microscopic savings was like telling the morbidly obese to skip the parsley garnish on their eggs Benedict.
The Concord Coalition and the Gramm-Rudman Act had their hearts in the right place. However, other than Bill Clinton, who actually balanced a few budgets, most candidates’ proposals for fiscal responsibility were red herrings, including the ever-popular “waste, fraud and abuse” — another example of painless budgetary policy: i.e., less parsley.
The new century began with a surplus, but the same conservatives now masquerading as deficit hawks swooned for Bush 43’s tax cuts, which swallowed it. And, not surprisingly, the Democrats who complained about the enormous Bush deficits aren’t nearly as concerned about President Obama’s spending.
The tea parties talk about spending cuts, but offer few realistic specifics. Instead, they chant the GOP mantra that we’re overtaxed, even though we take in only two dollars for every three we spend. Revenue enhancement isn’t even on the menu at tea partiers’ tables. Parties out of power push spending cuts, as long as they’re painless, while those in office spend like drunken sailors, because, like taxes, spending reductions are unpopular with the electorate and the special interests that contribute to politicians’ campaigns.
Meanwhile, with a trillion-dollar deficit, the 2010 lame-duck Congress is debating which Bush tax cuts to extend. It’s as surreal as nutritionists arguing whether the diabetic needs powdered sugar or glaze on his donuts. The diabetic, of course, wants both.
In such dire circumstances, all the deficit committee’s proposals should be “on the table,” but politicians prefer the phrase “dead on arrival” (DOA). For example, caps on the malpractice awards that drive up insurance costs are anathema to Democrats in the pockets of parasitic trial lawyers. Popular tax breaks, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, are untouchable, and, despite longer life spans, the rational option of raising the age to qualify for social security looks like a nonstarter.
And what Republican would support the committee’s proposal to cut the defense budget by $100 billion in 2015? The Pentagon accounts for half of all discretionary spending, and, since 9/11, we spend as much on the military as the rest of the world combined. Do we really need to be prepared to defend ourselves against every other nation on Earth? If we limited our outlays to just the level of Russia, China, Japan, Iran and the U.K. combined, we’d cut our military budget by more than two-thirds.
Americans love being the world’s policemen, even when we can no longer afford it. Decades after the Cold War, we fund hugely expensive military bases to defend Western Europe from the threat of the defunct Warsaw Pact. This may make us feel good, but, to paraphrase Ross Perot, that giant sucking sound is ...
In 2011, divided government should lend itself to budgetary compromises, but top Republicans, such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, have expressed distaste for cooperation, especially if it allows the Obama administration to point to any achievements. In such a partisan environment, few have the courage to back unpopular sacrifices, no matter how much the country may need them.
Candidates with uncomfortable solutions never become legislators, so we voters get what we deserve. Cardiac patients who fire their doctors for telling them they need to lose weight are unlikely to get better.
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