We cannot continue to spend beyond our means

Walter Lewis

Reading Thomas Paine’s essay “Common Sense” published in 1776 at the outset of the Revolutionary War is a great preparation to consider the issues presented in the current presidential election.

Paine’s tract written against the background of the oppressive British regime in the American colonies offers as its central thesis an examination of the role for government in a society. He offers the view that government is necessary to protect the people against their “wickedness”, but urges that its role be limited noting that governmental acts are infringements of the freedoms of the society.

The transformation of the American federal government since its formation has been remarkable. It has left its modest and limited beginning and has become widespread and powerful and among its manifestations offers multiple entitlement programs for its citizens including retirement and medical benefits.

These programs have been amended on numerous occasions to enhance greatly their benefits. At present they require well over half of the operating costs of the government.

In the interests of building benefits that are popular with our citizens our presidents and our Congress have been far more diligent in enacting programs than in finding financing to pay for them. Our leaders have capitalized on the political rewards for providing popular benefits and have evaded the more troublesome concern about their costs. In consequence by the end of this year our federal government is expected to have accumulated a debt of $16 trillion, of which $10 trillion has arisen in the last 12 years.

Both parties have been responsible for this modern buildup. George W. Bush did not choose to have citizens meet the full costs for his wars against Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and Barack Obama has sought revenue only sufficient to meet about 60 percent of his efforts at economic stimulation. Presently the deficit is growing at a rate of over $1 trillion per year.

Thoughtful observers are concerned that the government is placing a vast burden on future generations of Americans for the benefits now being enjoyed and committed, that the current debt is unsustainable and that any major additional indebtedness could be catastrophic for our economy.

It might seem that the existence of the huge debt and the continuing budget deficit would be highly attractive campaign issues for the Republicans in the 2012 elections. But both the Republican presidential candidates and Republican Congressmen and women are having great difficulties in the developing a proposed approach to use. The obvious remedy to eliminate the deficit and begin to get the debt under control would be to cut spending for entitlement programs and to raise revenues. The Republicans, though, have ideological problems with raising taxes and apparently feel that our citizens are too committed to the entitlement mentality to campaign for much entitlement reform. Although Congressman Ryan’s proposed budget offers some guidelines, to date they have failed to offer much of a definitive program and their solutions to the issues are languishing. The president is evidently content to allow the Republicans to flail about and apart from suggesting increasing taxes on those with income over $250,000 per year which would be standing alone woefully inadequate to rectify the deficit, he has rather blandly simply proposed a continued spending program he believes to be economy stimulating.

So while Rome burns Nero fiddles. The national indebtedness is indeed a vital problem. But the malaise that has crept into our political process is keeping each party looking for political advantage and preventing any bipartisan engagement to seek constructive solutions. The Bowles-Simpson commission recommendations contained some well considered ideas, but they were peremptorily rejected by both parties largely on partisan grounds.

We are at a critical national juncture point. For our economic survival we cannot continue indefinitely to spend beyond our means as a nation any more than we could as families.

In an ideal world our elected officials would serve to represent our interests rather than to achieve reelection, and would stop catering to special interests and maneuvering to maintain party loyalty and instead would engage themselves in seeking real solutions to our financial bind that would allocate their burdens responsibly among our citizens.

In the real world probably the best we can reasonably hope for is that the voters will study carefully the candidates words and their character as the 2012 campaign continues and then cast their vote for whomever they conclude will best address in a meaningful way the financial and other issues we have.

Our children and their children will thank you for trying to deal with this out of control debt issue now before its proliferation becomes unmanageable.

• Walter Lewis is a resident of Princeville and pens a biweekly column for The Garden Island.

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