We need more adults. Robert J. Samuelson brilliantly explains why:
The budget impasse raises comparable questions. Can we resolve it before some ill-defined crisis imposes its own terms? For years, there has been a “something for nothing” aspect to our politics. More people became dependent on government. From 1960 to 2010, the share of federal spending going for “payments to individuals” (Social Security, food stamps, Medicare and the like) climbed from 26 percent to 66 percent. Meanwhile, the tax burden barely budged. In 1960, federal taxes were 17.8 percent of national income (gross domestic product). In 2007, they were 18.5 percent of GDP.
This good fortune reflected falling military spending — from 52 percent of federal outlays in 1960 to 20 percent today — and solid economic growth that produced ample tax revenue. Generally modest budget deficits bridged any gap. But now this favorable arithmetic has collapsed under the weight of slower economic growth (even after a recovery from the recession), an aging population (increasing the number of recipients) and high health costs (already 26 percent of federal spending). Present and prospective deficits are gargantuan.
The trouble is that, while the economics of giveaway policies have changed, the politics haven’t. Liberals still want more spending, conservatives more tax cuts. (Although the tax burden has stayed steady, various “cuts” have offset projected increases and shifted the burden.) With a few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans haven’t embraced detailed takeaway policies to reconcile Americans’ appetite for government benefits with their distaste for taxes. President Obama has provided no leadership. Aside from Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, few Republicans have.
What do we get from our elected leaders? “Scripted evasions.”
Liberals imply (wrongly) that taxing the rich will solve the long-term budget problem. It won’t. For example, the Forbes 400 richest Americans have a collective wealth of $1.5 trillion. If the government simply confiscated everything they own, and turned them into paupers, it would barely cover the one-time 2011 deficit of $1.3 trillion. Conservatives deplore “spending” in the abstract, ignoring the popularity of much spending, especially Social Security and Medicare.
So the political system is failing. It’s stuck in the past. It can’t make desirable choices about the future. It can’t resolve deep conflicts.
This article should be required reading for anyone running for public office.