Ultimately, all this rising debt will cost us jobs and damage our economy. It will prevent us from making the investments we need to win the future. We won’t be able to afford good schools, new research, or the repair of roads and bridges — all the things that will create new jobs and businesses here in America. Businesses will be less likely to invest and open up shop in a country that seems unwilling or unable to balance its books. And if our creditors start worrying that we may be unable to pay back our debts, it could drive up interest rates for everyone who borrows money — making it harder for businesses to expand and hire, or families to take out a mortgage.
The good news is, this doesn’t have to be our future. This doesn’t have to be the country we leave to our children. We can solve this problem. We came together as Democrats and Republicans to meet this challenge before, and we can do it again.
But that starts by being honest about what’s causing our deficit. You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but they like the stuff it buys. Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare. And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political skills tell me that almost no one believes they should be paying higher taxes.
Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse — that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices. Or they suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about 1 percent of our entire budget.
So here’s the truth. Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and national security. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent. What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy, medical research and transportation, food safety, and keeping our air and water clean.
Up until now, the cuts proposed by a lot of folks in Washington have focused almost exclusively on that 12 percent. But cuts to that 12 percent alone won’t solve the problem. So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget. A serious plan doesn’t require us to balance our budget overnight — in fact, economists think that with the economy just starting to grow again, we will need a phased-in approach — but it does require tough decisions and support from leaders in both parties. And above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five and ten and twenty years down the road.
One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion over the next ten years, and one that addresses the challenge of Medicare and Medicaid in the years after that.
Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history.
A 70 percent cut to clean energy. A 25 percent cut in education. A 30 percent cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s what they’re proposing. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kind of cuts that Republicans and Democrats on the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kind of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America we believe in. And they paint a vision of our future that’s deeply pessimistic.
It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them. Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the United States of America — the greatest nation on Earth — can’t afford any of this.