Domestic, Most Recent Column, Op-Ed, Opinion — March 19, 2011 at 1:55 am

Debtors Anonymous

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A raging addiction. A fall from great heights. A shocking meltdown before the eyes of the world. No, I’m not talking about Charlie Sheen, I’m talking about the rest of us. I am happy to report that the United States has not yet reached the “tiger blood” phase of its addiction to deficit spending—the point at which hope really begins to fade—but we’re getting there. The sheer numbers involved are oft-repeated, but nevertheless astounding. With our national debt at more than $14 trillion and counting, and with annual deficits well over $1 trillion, America’s fiscal health is set to become the key issue in US politics in the years to come. Our prognosis is not good. The Pentagon’s $700 billion-plus budget is bloated with wasteful handouts to contractors, despite the best efforts of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to impose discipline. Members of both parties pay only lip service to tax reform. Worst of all, the biggest drivers of the debt—entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, which account for roughly half of government expenditure—remain untouchable.

The good news is that the American people, and even their esteemed leaders, seem to recognize that we have a problem. Virtually everyone who isn’t on the board of a defense contractor agrees that excess can and must be cut from the defense budget, and few would argue that a simpler tax code would be an altogether bad thing. The bad news is that even these changes, which are widely acknowledged as necessary, would be tough in this political environment. But that’s before we get to the really bad news: while a strong majority of the country wants to fix the deficit, a majority of Americans also opposes cuts to Social Security and Medicare—people acknowledge the problem while ignoring an unavoidable part of the solution As we know, the bulkiness of both programs is half the problem, and that’s even before the Baby Boomers begin retiring by the droves—once they do, their share of the deficit will skyrocket. To be blunt, this country’s attitude toward the growth of the national debt is like that of a heroin addict who says, “At some point in the future, I’ll start to cut back, but I’m keeping at least half my stash. I need it because it’s important. See? I’m cured!”

What we need is an intervention. What we need is an adult who will take seriously the recommendations of last year’s Bowles-Simpson debt commission. As we turn our focus to the 2012 election season, it is absolutely critical that we demand a serious, constructive debate from the President and his Republican challenger. A lasting solution to our fiscal problems will involve real pain: lower discretionary spending, higher taxes, and less generous benefits for the generations of retirees after the Baby Boomers. But if we put the right plan in place within the next presidential term, we can prevent the debt, and in particular, the coming explosion of entitlement spending, from permanently damaging our essential safety net, our economy, and our global power. A number of contenders for the GOP nomination, like Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana and former U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, appear ready to have that serious conversation with Barack Obama in 2012. Many do not. If the coming election season fails to produce our moment of reckoning, the bond market will: it is has little appetite for Adonis DNA-possessing addicts like Charlie Sheen and Uncle Sam.

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  1. You might wanna check out paul krugman’s recent op-ed piece. He seems to hold a different view on this issue.

  2. Yep. He certainly seems to.

    I’m not talking about an across-the-board austerity program like the one the coalition is using in Britain. You can’t cut spending all at once, but there has to be a concrete plan to deal with the deficit over the next five years or so.

  3. Taylor,
    How about starting with a study of the SSI payments for children. They get points toward their acceptance if they have a speech problem and yet speech therapy is free in the public schools. They get points for a learning disability and yet their educational needs are met by specially trained teachers. They get points for uncontrollable behavior. Wow! There’s an interesting fact. The taxpayers pay for students who misbehave. Parents are not required (and many that I know don’t) use the money to buy medication for their children with ADHD or to get tutoring or counseling for them if it is needed. They simply get $600-$700 a month because their child has a problem. There is no oversight. When I get back from spring break, there will be a stack of requests for SSI for me to sort through and get responses from teachers.
    And then there are the adults who are able to work yet they get disability payments monthly. I personally know three people who are more able to work than I am, yet they collect disability. If one searches long enough a doctor can be found to pronounce you disabled. NO oversight. And no, the answer is not to hire more people to oversee the process, we need to CHANGE the process. Tighter restrictions. Vouchers for what is needed instead of a check and no-one to answer to.

  4. you probably read this article already, but u might wanna take a look at this article if you haven’t.

    “GOP Aim: Cut $4 Trillion” -Budget Plan Would Transform Medicare, Reset Budget Debate; Democrats Balk

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