Sad to say, it doesn’t seem to make much difference what party controls Congress or has the White House, the debt climbs anyway. Furthermore, we consider it a “victory” when a year’s budget deficit is less than the previous one – even though all that means is that the debt continues to rise. We had a brief period during the second term when Bill Clinton was President and Republicans controlled Congress when there were budget surpluses, but in the Bush years they soon disappeared with the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, and, later, with the prescription drug benefit, and continued to grow in the Obama years with Obamacare, the auto bailout, the stimulus package and much more.
And this doesn’t even take into account the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, child care for all, and guaranteed income programs that are being boosted by almost all of the candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination. President Trump’s border wall may be a good thing, but it is going to cost money. Come to think of it, almost every “good thing” that the federal government undertakes costs money. But perhaps even worse than the new programs is the sad fact that the old ones go on forever.
What does the government spend our money on? Currently, about 27% of the budget goes for Medicare and Medicaid; 24% for Social Security; 17% for defense; 8% for interest; and the rest for the other departments and agencies. The amount, and its “mandatory” increases- that can occur without direct legislative action – of the entitlement programs is unsustainable, but so is the overall level of debt, and something has to be done – but what?
It is a harsh political reality that the main drivers of the deficits and the debt – the entitlement programs – won’t be touched. That is one reason that the debate over budget bills devotes most attention on items that spend far less; for the same reason, government shutdowns affect only visible, “non-vital” items such as parks and office hours – those places where the real money is being spent are out of reach. That, we think, is the chief problem. It is as if a family that finds itself thousands of dollars in debt because it has been living beyond its means and borrowing money it cannot repay would decide to get back on the prudent path by going to one less movie a year or buying store-brand cereal instead of a national brand. It may save a few cents, but the real problem will continue to grow. We could freeze “discretionary” spending; trim government employment; eliminate federal agencies, programs and offices (and every one of us could name a few, because there are many tasks that the government takes on that would best be left to others, or should not be done at all). We could end prevailing wage laws, which drive up the cost of federal and state construction projects. We could (for instance) eliminate the subsidy to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (or other agencies) and save a few hundred million each time, but until we tackle the main parts of the budget, trimming a bit around the edge won’t gain very much.
It probably is impossible to trim the entitlement programs immediately, but it might be possible to freeze their growth, if everything else in the budget can be frozen as well. Freezing national defense does not appeal to us, but there must be programs that could be halted or frozen, or other spending that could be trimmed there. Unfortunately, government spending reductions in recent years have fallen disproportionately on the military. “Readiness” items, such as training,supplies, and munitions, seem to be the first things that are cut, and almost always to the detriment of the service, but in budgets the size of the Pentagon’s there have to be plenty of places where money is being spent unwisely. And we don’t mean the “waste, fraud and abuse” that every body talks about but never get corrected, in the Pentagon or anywhere else in the federal budget. Even more unfortunate is the Pentagon is just about the only part of the government that offers cuts in its own programs; most of the others don’t even try. Remember this: in 1952, over 70% of our budget went for defense; in 1969, it was about 52%; now it is 17%. We still spend a lot of money on defense, but we also spend a lot more money on a lot more programs.
The stark reality is this, according to a study by Brian Reidel as reported in Reason Magazine: In the next 30 years, Social Security will have a deficit of $18 trillion; Medicare a deficit of $41 trillion, and, according to Mr. Reidel, the interest on that debt will amount to $41 trillion. He says everything else in the budget will – get this – have a surplus of $16 trillion over the next 30 years. He says that the average couple who retires in 2018 will have paid $140,000 into Medicare but will receive $420,000 in return; Social Security has a greater disparity. Other observers will provide different numbers, but the point is that we spend too much on “very good things,” and we really spend too much on Social Security and Medicare – because we make promises we cannot afford to keep from a fiscal standpoint but cannot afford not to keep from a political standpoint. Defense spending can drop – but entitlement spending doesn’t ever seem to do so.
By all means, let’s trim the federal budget every place we can. Let’s eliminate all the waste, fraud and abuse we possibly can. Let’s not adopt any new spending programs unless we eliminate the equivalent amount of current spending. Let us eliminate as many subsidies as we can, and let us make sure that no one receives more money in tax credits than he pays in taxes. Let us eliminate every redundant spending program and every pork barrel boondoggle there is. But until we address the major components of the spending problem, that is, the mandated programs, we will not bring our national debt under control.