HomeThe Budget Question That Doesn’t Get Asked

The Budget Question That Doesn’t Get Asked

AUTHOR: Scott Bittle, Senior Fellow, Public Agenda
Aug 29, 2011

Some members of the budget “supercommittee” are apologizing in advance. That’s probably a prudent strategy, because it’s highly likely nobody will like the spending cuts or tax increases that will be needed to produce $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. And the committee’s other option, of failing to produce anything at all, will set off the “trigger” for automatic cuts — combining the pain of budget cuts with the humiliation of failure.

But the biggest problem may prove to be that there’s a question about our fiscal future that needs to be asked, and nobody on the committee is likely to ask it. Namely:

Are the priorities we have the priorities we really want?

This is completely different from the debate that gets most of the attention lately, over small government versus big government. Whether you want the government to do a lot or a little, the question still remains: what, specifically, do you actually want the government to do?

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post famously said “if you look at how the federal government spends our money, it’s an insurance conglomerate protected by a large, standing army.” Two-thirds of the federal budget gets spent on just five things: Social Security, defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt.

Providing social insurance and defending the country are legitimate goals. If we put our priorities to a public vote, those programs might well win. But our priorities have grown up gradually, over decades, based on decisions made as far back as the New Deal and the Cold War. We never, as a nation, stop and ask if this is what we really want. At some point, however, we’re going to have to, because the combination of an aging population and the fact that health care costs keep rising at twice the rate of inflation means these priorities are going to keep getting more expensive. The Government Accountability Office projects that within a decade, more than 90 cents of every dollar the government takes in will go to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt. Everything else gets squeezed.

And “everything else” includes important issues. What about education, energy and the environment, our crumbling roads and bridges? How about jump-starting the economy using tax cuts or “stimulus” spending? These things matter too. So does how much we’re willing to pay for any of these goals. We shouldn’t make these choices by default.

The fact is that we can make any set of priorities work, fiscally speaking. The Committee on the Fiscal Future report laid out four alternative paths, all of which keep deficits and the national debt at sustainable levels. Think tanks, commissions and advocacy groups of every persuasion have weighed in with their plans, each showing how you can make any set of values fiscally responsible.

First, however, you have to be sure what those priorities are. Right now it looks like the supercommittee, boxed in by a brutal political climate and a hard deadline, will jump right into the weeds of deciding what cuts or tax increases are needed to reach a $1.2 trillion deal. If we don’t ask the basic questions, however, their plan can only be a temporary fix. If we don’t know where we want to go, it’s a sure bet we’ll never get there.

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