Debt Ceiling Deal: What Should We Cut?

So at the final hour we avoided the fiscal cliff, though nobody I know, liberal or conservative, is especially happy about how it came about. In avoiding it, we sidestepped some huge issues – the debt ceiling, the sequester, long-term spending changes – that will resurface in March and will pose as thorny a debate as what we just went through. All this, though, begs the question: What do we do long-term to ensure the nation remains solvent while ensuring Americans get what they need from government?

The problem is that there is no single view of what people want from government and what they are willing to pay for. Tea Party activists have been adamant that government is too big, too intrusive in Americans’ lives, and too spendthrift with our money, mortgaging our descendants’ future to a level that even the best economy can’t sustain. Liberals are just as adamant that the continued siphoning of national resources by the privileged 1%, while quality of life, public welfare, health, and retirement security go begging, are just as great dangers.

In these disparate views, we might as well be two different countries or even different human species, so divergent is our thinking. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff poses that we view the world through by two entirely different metaphors. On the liberal side, he says, we see the country as a cohesive family led by nurturing parents. On the conservative side, we see the nation as a family led by a single strong father who sets the rules and defines the goals. Check out Lakoff’s book “Moral Politics” for a detailed treatment of the subject.

The nation is so evenly divided between these camps that recent national elections have teetered on a knife edge, with the outcome determining vastly policies and concepts of governing.  

It is true we have to get our fiscal house in order, restructuring entitlements like Social Security and Medicare to ensure their lasting stability. We have to do our best to balance national income with spending so that debt doesn’t overwhelm us. The current national debt is about $16 trillion, which is just a bit more than the nation’s yearly Gross Domestic Product (the combined total of all the goods and services the nation produces). That debt has nearly tripled in the last decade, though, in large part because of tax cuts, funding for wars, and for programs to fight recession. That’s not so large a debt that it couldn’t come down by similar orders of magnitude if we could agree on one simple premise: That we spend what we need to ensure our quality of life, but we don’t spend more than our income allows. Defining what we need is the real issue.

Some look at state governments as a solution. They, in theory at least, must balance their budgets. Often, though, they sidestep that requirement by borrowing. My state of California, for instance, has approximately $90 billion of bonded indebtedness, which means that something like 8% of the state’s general fund budget went for debt service in 2012.

The federal government has no such balanced budget rule and, though some on the Right have called for one, I see no way to institute it without making it impossible for the government to respond to threats to the national health and safety, to wars, recessions, and world turmoil, while still keeping up with its commitments to its citizens.

While it may be possible to cut waste, abuse, and unnecessary federal spending, most of our federal budget goes for entitlements like Medicare and Social Security and for national defense, items few of any ideological stripe would want cut. What’s left is not big enough to make a difference. So the real debate, the big one, should not be about disagreements on exactly how much we spend on key items and how much we tax to pay for them. That real debate should be on the national priorities that underlie these issues. Until we get some consensus on those priorities we are going to continue to do battle over how we earn and how we spend with no solution in sight.