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Less on the Beets, Please, and More on the Budget
By Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle
Authors of Where Does the Money Go?

Thanks to some fearless investigative journalism by the Associated Press, voters can now ponder revealing new facts on what the presidential candidates hate to eat. We guess that's handy if you're expecting them to drop by for dinner. Don't serve liver if it's Rudy; lose the beets if it's Barack. Meanwhile, info on what our budding presidents would do about the country's massive budget problems doesn't seem to be on the menu. Most of the press lets candidates slip by with the usual lip service to "balancing the budget. The Republicans say they'll do it with spending cuts -- but don't worry, it won't affect anything you care about. The Democrats say they'll raise taxes on the very rich, but they have quite a few plans to spend more as well. So far, there's almost no serious discussion of the country's long-term budget problems -- problems much too big to be nipped and tucked way.  Knowing how the candidates will handle the country's finances and whether they're going to saddle the next generation with colossal debt is a lot more important than knowing what they don't like to eat, but it looks like voters will have to fend for themselves on this one.

It won't be easy. Even voters who follow the issue carefully may feel like they're trapped inside an echo chamber of contending facts. "Federal Deficit Falls," one headline reads. "Budget Surplus Projected for 2012." That's true as far as it goes, but skip to another story, and you'll see "Federal Debt at $9 Trillion and Counting." For most Americans, $9 trillion is a completely unfathomable number, but this can't possibly be good.

No one expects voters to be budget wonks, but there are some essentials we all need to absorb.

This budget problem is real, and it's really, really big. Here's one way to get a handle on how big the federal debt is. The annual interest we pay on that $9 trillion costs us more than the war in Iraq. Mindboggling, isn't it? And while getting out of Iraq could save massive amounts of money -- not to mention irreplaceable human lives -- it won't solve our budget problems. As of June 2007, we've spent more than $600 billion on Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest of the "war on terror."  In the same time period, we added over $2 trillion to the country's debt. So it's not just Iraq  -- not by a long shot.

Somebody say surplus? Don't count on it. Yes, it's true that projections from the Congressional Budget Office show a surplus by 2012. But that's only if Congress lets every single one of the Bush tax cuts expire. Not even the Democrats are pushing that. And remember, even those Democrats who want to raise taxes on wealthy Americans generally have other plans for the money, namely expanding health care coverage. Counting on that surplus is burying our heads in the sand.

Falling deficit? Don't uncork the champagne yet. Yes, it's better than having the deficit go up, but this is no time to relax about Washington's penchant for red ink. The country has spent more on programs than it has collected in taxes for 31 out of the last 35 years. Going into debt is the easy way out in Washington, and they've been doing it for years.

Balancing the budget is not enough. The country's long-term financial problems are much worse than the year-to-year budget shows. Going cold turkey on deficit spending is certainly a good thing, but it isn't enough to put the country back on a stable financial path. Unless we reform Social Security and Medicare -- unless we raise revenues or trim benefits or cut health care costs or do some combination of all three -- the huge debt the country has accumulated over the years will skyrocket. The heart-stopping little factoid circulating in D.C. policy circles? Just a few decades out, if nothing changes, the country will need nearly every tax dollar it collects to pay for Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt.

Back in the day, Ross Perot pulled out the pie charts and put the country's budget problems front and center in his campaign. It doesn't look like that's going to happen this time around. This time around, we're just going to have to do that for ourselves.

Copyright © 2007 Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson

Scott Bittle,
an award-winning journalist, is executive editor of PublicAgendaOnline, a public affairs site twice-nominated for the prestigious Webby Award.

Jean Johnson
is executive vice president of Public Agenda and a founder of the Web site. She has written on public opinion and current issues for dozens of publications ranging from Education Week to USA Today.

Both authors live in the New York City area.

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