Let us stipulate that some government programs are worth paying for. Some are either sufficiently popular, sufficiently necessary, or sufficiently interwoven through the life of the nation that few people believe they should be instantly vaporized.
Social Security is one of those programs. Regardless of the great need for fiscal reform, there is no moral justification for failing to pay next months benefit. The same goes for Medicare: Flaws aside, its the operative system under which most senior citizens pay for medical care; they dont deserve to go without care, and providers dont deserve to go without reimbursement.
Theres no stomach for holding military paychecks either. Even those Americans who disapprove of the nations current entanglements understand that those who serve (and those who have gone before them) should not be abandoned.
Then theres a long list of programs that are, over the short term, cannot be shut down without drastic consequences: The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, air traffic controllers, etc.
And without the federal payroll and the money spent buying goods and services, businesses in some areas including communities far beyond the Beltway would falter very quickly. Those expenditures are real, and they buy real commodities; if they go away, the economic void they leave also will be real and this is a time when unemployment is high and the economy is slow.
Therefore, there can be no instant, painless fix to the budget problem. Most Americans who get past political sloganeering understand that the debt ceiling will have to be raised. The United States is not a nation that defaults on its obligations to its citizens and its creditors.
Yet Americans want debt reduction; in polling, between half and two-thirds name that as their top priority. Theyre afraid, and rightly so, that once the limit is lifted, lawmakers will be right back where they started, spending money that can only be acquired from two sources: borrowing and taxation.
Why, they ask, cant our government live on what it takes in, like we do?
Except for the minority who manage to live their entire lives without mortgages, car loans and credit cards, that kind of thinking is disingenuous. The latest figures on underwater mortgages show that 22.7 percent of Americans nearly a quarter! owe more on their homes than what theyre worth.
Economic growth in modern times depends on the flow of funds from lenders to borrowers. Although that transaction takes different forms and uses different terminology deposits, investors, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, leverage using other peoples money is a big part of it.
Borrowing isnt an inherent problem. Borrowing more and more to pay for uncontrolled spending is, but no one benefits from pretending that few government programs are essential. Remove from the table just those first three Social Security, Medicare and the military and theres not nearly enough left to make the necessary cuts. Raising taxes on the rich wont solve the problem either. The problem requires all that and more.
Americans all along the political spectrum understand that. They understand that big changes are necessary. What they cant understand is why their elected representatives dont have the courage to tackle the real issues, rather than just pointing fingers at the spending on the other side of the aisle. To remain credible, Congress must do something real this time. The debt ceiling is a serious issue, but its emblematic of a much larger one. We need a systematic fix. Torpedoing the opposing party wont provide it.