Pontificating about the national debt and fiscal responsibility is popular campaign rhetoric, but politicians haven't done anything significant to reduce the national debt since President Bill Clinton was in office.
In fact, under President George W. Bush, Clinton's $127 billion surplus was transformed into a record $455 billion deficit-- through repeated tax cuts for the wealthy, military imperialism, and adherence to the failed theory of trickle down economics. Now the debt is in the trillions of dollars--and increasing every minute.
As we approach a new year with cautious hope, many Americans are glad to see 2009 end. With skyrocketing unemployment and home foreclosures, failing local businesses, and bankrupt state and local governments, it has been a rough year and a half since the economic crash of 2008.
Watching I.O.U.S.A. One Nation. Under Stress. In Debt on New Year's Day was a chilling experience. The movie offers a learned but understandable look at the current national debt, how we are dealing with it (or not), and what the country has done in the past to pay off debt. For a thorough recap and independent review of the movie, check out this link.
In a nutshell, the premise of the movie is that the US actually has four deficits:
1- The federal budget deficit-- The national debt is $12 trillion and counting;
2- The savings deficit-- we are a country of consumers, not savers;
3- The trade deficit-- we buy more from other countries than they buy from us; and
4- The leadership deficit-- our politicians are more interested in getting re-elected, than making tough choices. The leadership deficit is glaringly apparent in Arizona, where the Republican governor and Republican-controlled legislature nip away at the multi-billion-dollar budget while avoiding tough choices and refusing to listen to ideas put forth by the legislative Democrats.
I would two more deficits to this list:
5- The education deficit-- It was shocking how many people in the movie could not define the word "deficit". This is a symptom of our failed educational system, which is only going to get worse in bankrupt states like Arizona. Public education in the US is in a downward spiral, and no one is acting upon this. After all an uneducated populace will not question those in power. If you can't even define "deficit," you're not likely to ask for accountability from the leaders who are running it up. We are shortchanging future generations by allowing this to continue.
6- The media deficit-- With the demise of local newspapers and the rise of television entertainment news, the media in the US is in a shambles. Our best hope for real news-- not controlled by corporate press releases-- is citizen journalism.
When the continuation of the war in Iraq, escalation of the war in Afghanistan, multiple stimulus packages and corporate give-aways, and potential healthcare reform are added to our current fiscal obligations and the impending financial doom with the government starts paying Social Security benefits to millions of retiring Baby Boomers, the scenario is mind-boggling. For years, US taxpayers have been paying more into Social Security than is being paid out to retirees. Within the next 10 years, as more Baby Boomers retire, Social Security will be obligated to pay out more than it takes in. This in itself is a problem, but the US government has been borrowing against the Social Security surplus for years. No more surplus = no more borrowing = an even higher budget deficit.
Where do we go from here?
- Americans have to be willing to make tough economic choices. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and the ideologues at FOX News, many Americans believe we can have everything we want and not pay for it. Our credit card mentality has to change. The bill is coming due, and we have to figure out how to pay it.
- We absolutely have to hold our elected officials accountable. In many elections, there is a "throw-the-bums-out" sentiment. This can be good or bad. Yes, throwing the bums out can clean house, but it is not blanketly a good idea to vote for the challenger "just because". We should reward politicians who have the guts to make the tough choices for the collective good. (Except for President Barack Obama and some in his administration, I can't name too many politicians who are putting the public good in front of personal ambition.)
- It is unconscionable for us to spend, spend, spend and leave crippling debt, a crumbling infrastructure, and a devastated educational system to our children and grandchildren.
- What can you do personally? Get involved in your local community and local government. Register and vote. Educate yourself about candidates and issues. Talk with friends and family. An educated and informed electorate is the key to change. Check out the I.O.U.S.A. trailer as a first step.
- Release yourself from debt. Pay off your credit cards, cut them up, and close the accounts. Don't buy things you can't afford. Save money. Make a plan to become financially independent.
This article originally appeared in my Progressive Examiner column.