The Deficit Equation: Facing Up to Reality

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In an economy such as ours, it only makes sense that people on both sides of the aisle are concerned with national debt brought on by the continually rising deficit. The funny thing about this concern is that people seem to turn off that concern like a light switch. They get cranky about it when times are bad or when their political opponents are involved, but largely ignore it when times are good or the people responsible are on their side. Setting aside the partisan game both parties play with the debt, Americans are actually united on this issue – everyone prefers to spend more and tax less.

Ask any person on the street about ways to solve the debt problem, and I guarantee you most will suggest cutting wasteful spending. However, if you were to ask that person which programs should be cut – silence. Apparently wasteful spending only exists in the abstract; once you begin to consider the many government programs and subsidies that lead to rising debt, no one is willing to start making sacrifices.

Sure, we’d all love to be able to get the same amount of government service without having to take more money out of our pocketbooks, but that’s a childish fantasy. If people actually care about the debt, then they have to be willing to take the necessary steps to combat that. That means actually cutting spending, and yes, paying more taxes.

President Clinton famously encouraged Congress to raise taxes prior to the 1994 elections and we all know what happened there. At the time it was called “the biggest tax increase in American history.” Looking back, Americans were very unhappy with this until a few years later when Congress passed a balanced budget and the government created a budget surplus in the final Clinton years. Taxes are universally hated, we can all agree on that, but if you’re going to take advantage of public goods and services, keep in mind that those goods and services rely on taxpayer dollars. Borrowing 40 cents for every dollar spent is a sweet deal, but eventually the balance is due and payable.

If you thought the Clinton tax increase was bad, just wait until we actually have to pay the interest on the debt in 2020 – the current estimate is $916 billion! That money has to come from somewhere.

The most obvious area in need of a trim is the defense budget. Well, let’s call it what it is: a corporate jobs bill. Military spending is the biggest piece of the discretionary financial pie, and a lot of it is really excess spending anyway. We still station troops in parts of the world that were involved in wars that have long since ended, and continue to stockpile weapons and equipment that is outdated and ineffective just so that existing defense contracts can continue to be fruitful for the companies involved.

The United States leads the world in military spending, with a budget more than the next 15 countries combined. If you ask me, if the rest of the world spends as little as they do compared to the U.S., why spend as much as we do? Why not cut that in half? I doubt that the rest of the world will suddenly think it’s a good idea to attack the United States. After all, we’d still be outspending most of the world, and if the only incentive countries had to attack one another was whether or not they could outspend them, wouldn’t the U.S. have taken over the world by now?

Of course, it’s political suicide to suggest cutting defense spending. It’s also political suicide to suggest raising taxes and, if not political suicide, a bad idea to suggest cutting popular government programs; if it’s a popular program, then it’s one of the most expensive. Paying for Social Security, Medicare and health care expenses, combined with the massive defense budget and interest on the debt, exceeds revenues from the current tax system.

No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, it’s obvious that something needs to be done. But as long as politicians can use the debt as a weapon in campaigns, neither side will do what it takes to manage or reduce the increasing weight of the debt. Politicians respond to the will of the voters, and the will is clear: keep paying for all my favorite government programs, but don’t make me pay more taxes to fund them. In short, push the needed sacrifices to the next generation.

Kerry Wakely is a second-year political science major. He can be reached at kwakely@uci.edu.

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