With the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets now set, the national debate about the economy, public spending and the deficit is sure to heat up.
This is a conversation in which all of us must make our opinions known. Why? Because where we spend government dollars is nothing less than the practical application of our values.
Let’s start with a look at our nation’s finances. In short, while the economy may be improving, we have more tough times and choices ahead. Three recent reports make this clear.
Report one, from the U.S. Department of Labor, tells us that we are 12 million jobs short of the pre-recession level of employment
Report two, from the State Budget Crisis Task Force, studied the finances of six large states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Virginia. It tells us that “The conclusion of the Task Force is unambiguous. The existing trajectory of state spending, taxation, and administrative practices cannot be sustained. The basic problem is not cyclical. It is structural. The time to act is now.”
Report three, from the management consulting firm Bain and Company, analyzed the finances of 1,700 public and private nonprofit colleges. It tells us that “one-third of the institutions have an unsustainable financial path” and another 28 percent are “at risk of slipping into an unsustainable condition.”
Unfortunately, these reports reflect our broader financial health. The federal government is unable to deal with the national debt, now at more than $15 trillion. Moody’s downgraded 300 municipal bond issuers in the second quarter of 2012, the most in more than a decade. Bankruptcy filings, non-business and business, have risen from under 1 million in 2008 to 1.5 million in 2011. But all is not doom and gloom. Relative to many other countries, our finances are strong; America’s economy has been resilient in the past; and, to a great degree, we control our own destiny. But this control is predicated on a number of factors, one of which is reducing government spending.
This brings us to the tough part: What programs do we want to cut and by how much?
In a recent report, Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, stated that “In my years of polling, there has never been an issue such as the deficit on which there has been such a consensus among the public about its importance — and such a lack of agreement about acceptable solutions.”
The report goes on to tell us that while 70 percent of the public believes the deficit is a major threat to our economic well-being, people are neither willing to reduce spending nor to raise taxes. Here are a few examples: Americans favor spending increases over decreases in 15 of 18 major policy areas (including education, Medicare, Social Security, aid to the U.S. needy, and infrastructure); 60 percent believe that maintaining entitlement benefits is more important than deficit reduction; and there is strong or moderate opposition to taxing employer-provided health insurance, raising the gas tax or Medicare contributions, reducing federal funding to states, eliminating the home mortgage deduction, raising the Social Security retirement age and/or levying a national sales tax.
One thing is clear: Congress is afraid to act and we all know it. Only 10 percent of the American public approves of the job Congress is doing.
So what are to do? Take on the responsibility ourselves. We need to tell Congress and the presidential candidates what we value. How do we do it? We must start and pursue a vigorous and unrelenting debate about budget cuts in all the venues we inhabit: in our local press, with our local officials, in all our businesses and social settings.
To get the ball rolling, here are three principles that we may want to seriously consider:
• Protect investments in our future. This moves education and infrastructure to the top of the list.
• Protect those who are most needy and will be most damaged by reductions.
• Get the economy back up and running and, to a great degree, this means creating jobs.
Georges Clemenceau, the French journalist and statesman, famously said that “War is too important to be left to the generals.” We need to say that the “budget it too important to be left to the politicians.”