Admitting the Problem is the First Step Toward Solving It
Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Nov 18, 2011
In his 1948 presidential campaign, Harry "Give 'em Hell" Truman attacked Republican policies saying, "I never give anybody hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell."
Today, we have the exact opposite. Our politicians do not tell us the truth because the budgetary truth is too hellacious. Instead, we see politicians make demagogic and dishonest statements that contribute to our budgetary paralysis.
Democrats contribute to the charade by claiming that we can solve our budgetary problems by taxing the rich. Looking at President Obama's proposal to reduce the deficit by $3 trillion over 10 years, half comes from ending tax deductions and the Bush tax cuts for the rich while a third of his "savings" comes from spending what wasn't going to occur in the first place. Even if we take the extra $150 billion in annual tax revenue, it is a drop in the bucket in our current $1.4 trillion deficit, less than a quarter of our projected deficits in 2020, and does nothing to pay down our debt.
Meanwhile Democrats continue the fairytale that we don't have to restructure entitlements. Yet, Social Security has a $9.1 trillion unfunded liability and we will have to start repaying IOUs in the Social Security Trust Fund in 2023.
But the big problem is health care, because health care costs are growing faster than inflation, and people are living longer. The Affordable Care Act exacerbates the budget situation because it increases Medicare spending, expands Medicaid and provides subsidies to the uninsured while providing no cost control. Thus, government health care spending will increase from 11 percent to 20 percent of GDP by 2050.
Yet, Republicans are just as guilty as they perpetuate the myth that we can easily reduce government spending to eliminate the deficit. For example, Texas Gov. Rick Perry proposes eliminating the departments of Commerce, Education and Energy but his actual proposal doesn't really save much money. Instead, his proposal eliminates cabinet secretaries but keeps the programs. For example, Perry "eliminates" the Commerce Department but moves departmental agencies, like the National Weather Service, to other departments, or makes others, like the Census Bureau, a stand-alone agency.
Second, Perry returns power to the states by replacing the Education Department with block grants. The states may get less federal money in exchange for flexibility in how they use education funds, but substantial federal education spending continues.
Third, Perry eliminates subsidies and research grants for energy research. However, he replaces this spending with tax incentives for private research. So savings from spending money is canceled out by new tax breaks. Overall, "eliminating" departments saves less than imagined.
With both parties perpetuating budgetary myths, the public assumes there are easy solutions and naturally oppose painful ones.
This dilemma brings us to the Super Committee. Members of both parties have proposed violating their party's sacred cows regarding taxes and entitlement reform, but the previously mentioned misleading claims lead affected interests and ideologues to oppose even minor tinkering.
Governing is about making choices, but our politicians refuse to make choices. And until politicians are honest with the public, we, as a nation, will be unable to make the difficult, but necessary, budgetary choices to put ourselves on a firmer financial footing.
This column originally appeared in the November 17 edition of The Jackson Sun