Fixing the budget is easy, but nobody’s willing to do it

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

“A billion here, a billion there — and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”
That infamous remark, usually attributed to the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) has long symbolized the spendthrift ways of Washington politicians.
Alas, it’s as outdated as 1970s home prices in Aspen.
This year’s federal budget is slightly more than $3 trillion, meaning that a couple of billion dollars amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent. A billion dollars is a rounding error, about as significant to our bloated national budget as is the cost of a beer at Tony’s to a thirsty reporter — assuming said reporter imbibes a single beer annually.
That’s why congressional candidate Jeff Crank’s latest screed about earmarks is so dispiriting.
According to a news release, “Crank vowed to fight the scourge of earmarks last month when he signing [sic] the FreedomWorks pledge to oppose earmarks and return fiscal common sense to Congress …We must cut the size and scope of the federal government.”
Well Jeff, that’s fine, but you’re looking in the wrong place.
According to the porkbusters at Citizens Against Government Waste, Congress approved $17.2 billion in 11,610 earmarks during fiscal 2008. Of those, CAGW singled out 1,188 projects, totaling $2.8 billion, in this year’s “Congressional Pig Book Summary” to symbolize the most egregious and blatant examples of pork.
During 2008, Colorado ranked 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in earmarks received. Our feckless elected officials only managed to snag a total of $94 million, or $19.34 per capita. Not very impressive, especially compared to the porkmeisters of the frozen north, who scored $380 million, or $555.54 per capita, for the 680,000 residents of Alaska.
If you’d like to learn more about the real financial crisis that threatens our country, read the refreshingly non-partisan, coldly realistic book by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, “Where Does the Money Go?: Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis.”
Here’s the issue: “The United States is seemingly addicted to spending more than it takes in.” And, they say bluntly, “… today’s problems will seem like a fender bender compared to the economic train wreck the country will face if we don’t get the nation’s finances under control.”
Their arguments are familiar, yet both the American people and the politicians we elect have spent the last 30-odd years pretending that everything’s just fine.
According to Bittle and Johnson, between 1971 and 2006, the feds spent more than they took in all but four of those 35 years. Aggregate government debt is now well north of $9 trillion, much of which is owed to China and Middle East oil-exporting countries.
Such debt, guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, has historically been considered the world’s safest investment.
But does it remain so?
Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder — and owners of dollar denominated debt have seen the market value of their investments decline steeply during recent years. As the authors rather unkindly point out, if the rest of the world decides that they’ve had enough of our profligate ways, it’d be the equivalent of the store clerk cutting your credit card in half.
So what must we do to bolster our once-perfect credit score?
Bittle and Johnson don’t offer a national 12-step program (“My name is Uncle Sam and I’m addicted to debt!”). Rather, they suggest that we face the unpalatable facts.
Fact: 40 percent of the federal budget is consumed by Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare — twice as much as the 20 percent allocated for defense.
Fact: During 2006, there were less than 50 million Social Security recipients. By 2020, there will be 70 million.
Fact: “Unless something changes, we could see a time (around 2040, if nothing is done) when nearly every tax dollar collected will be needed to pay for retirement and health care for the elderly and interest on the debt. There will be almost no money for anything else, except maybe a basic national defense.”
Fact: The three presidential candidates still standing have failed to offer serious, credible plans for balancing the budget. That may be because to do so would alienate much of the electorate (right, Jeff?).
Once we’ve admitted to our addiction, it’s clear that the path to recovery is both simple and … well, let’s just say politically embarrassing. It requires that we take the least popular proposals from right and left, and blend them into a teetotaler’s cocktail of tax increases and benefit cuts.
And here they are!
Raise the Social Security retirement threshold to 70. Increase Social Security taxes. Privatize the entire program. Shrink the prescription drug benefit. Redesign Medicare to reduce costs. Pass a national value-added (i.e. sales) tax.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? And just how many members of Congress do you think might support such a program? My guess is none — not even Ron Paul.
Like the guy getting advances from one credit card to pay the minimum on another, we know we have to do something, and we’re ready to do it.
Just as long as it doesn’t involve spending less, or earning more.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.