Uncle Dave on the Real Terror Threat: the Nat’l Debt

NYTimes columnist David Brooks today has a stark warning for all readers: We are on track to be financially consumed by our own federal government debt. I’m copying a large chunk of his column below because he spells out the situation clearly. Reading this, I’m reminded of the late Paul Tsongas and his friend Warren Rudman of N.H. forming the Concord Coalition—and Paul’s exhortations about “generational responsibility” in the early 1990s. This alarm is not new. Read the rest of Brooks’ column here, and get the times if you want more.

The coming budget cuts have nothing to do with merit. They have to do with the inexorable logic of mathematics. Over the past decades, spending in nearly every section of the federal budget has exploded to unsustainable levels. Each year, your family’s share of the national debt increases by about $12,000. By 2015, according to Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, Moody’s will downgrade U.S. debt.

The greatest pressure comes from entitlements. Spending on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt has now risen to 47 percent of the budget. In nine years, entitlements are estimated to consume 64 percent of the budget, according to the invaluable folks at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. By 2030, they are projected consume 70 percent of the budget.

When you throw in other politically untouchable programs, like Veterans Affairs, you arrive at a situation in which a vast majority of the budget is off limits to politicians who are trying to control debt. All cuts must, therefore, be made in the tiny sliver of the budget where the most valuable programs reside and where the most important investments in our future are made.

Over the next few weeks, Republicans will try to cut discretionary spending to 2008 levels and tell their constituents they are boldly reducing the size of government. That is a mirage. Anybody who doesn’t take on entitlement spending is an enabler of big government. The supposedly rabid Republican freshmen are actually big government conservatives. They will cut programs that do measurable good while doing little to solve our long-range fiscal crisis.

The foreign aid people, the scientific research people, the education people, the antipoverty people and many others have to form a humane alliance. They have to go on offense. They have to embrace plans to slow the growth of Medicare, to reform Social Security and to reform the tax code to foster growth and produce more revenue.

Specifically, they have to get behind an effort now being hatched by a group of courageous senators: Saxby Chambliss, Mark Warner, Tom Coburn, Dick Durbin, Mike Crapo and Kent Conrad. These public heroes have been leading an effort to write up the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission report as legislation to serve as the beginning for a serious effort to get our house in order. . . .

One Response to Uncle Dave on the Real Terror Threat: the Nat’l Debt

  1. John Lumbard says:

    Well expressed! David Brooks says that your family’s share of the national debt is increasing at a rate of $12,000 a year, but if you’re a white-collar worker in Massachusetts your income is far above the national average—and that means that your share of the debt is growing by $18,000 or $24,000 a year. The median household income for 2009 was $49,777 . . . . .

    Politicians have learned to buy votes with taxpayer dollars, and that’s a permanent change in the way our political system works. The good news is that there’s a bill in the U.S. Senate, right now, that proposes a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution. It’s sponsored by Senators Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). The amendment would allow Congress to run deficits or spend more than 20% of GDP (the most we’ve ever collected in taxes) only by a vote of 3/5 of Congress. In other words, they’d still be able to overspend if necessary, but it would cease to be the norm.

    This isn’t going to happen unless you take the time to write to your congressional delegation. E-mail addresses can be found at http://www.contactingthecongress.org/, and you can learn everything you need to know about our rapidly-compounding debt by visiting WeElectedYou.org.