Hardly. The problem lies with mandatory spending on healthcare and retirement programs, which by the end of the decade will be growing faster than the economy and account for 14.4 percent of GDP in 2022 compared with 13.2 percent now.
Fixing the short-term deficit would give lawmakers time to solve the problem of entitlement spending. That’s no guarantee that they will. Time to craft serious solutions is also time to ignore the problem altogether. But it can’t be ignored forever. Mandatory spending, including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, accounted for about one-quarter of federal outlays in 1962. Last year, it was 56 percent. And the direction is up.
Another reason to rappel down the cliff is to teach Congress a lesson. Yes, we suffer the consequences of their actions, but voters need to understand how we got into this mess. Lawmakers use sleight-of-hand accounting to make laws appear affordable when in reality they aren’t. They craft tax breaks for favored constituencies. I have written previously that “targeted, temporary and timely” should be eliminated as fiscal-policy options and replaced with the three F’s for tax rates: flatten ‘em, fix ‘em and forget ‘em.
There’s one final reason to allow policies to continue as written. It is said (by whom is unclear) that we get the government we deserve. Look at what we got. It wasn’t that long ago that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, found ways to work together. A president (Ronald Reagan) and a speaker of the House (Tip O’Neill) collaborated to enact major tax reform. Senators with diametrically opposing views — Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts — were willing to compromise.
Nowadays, Republicans sign a pledge never to raise taxes, and Democrats pretend that “saving Medicare as we know it” is an option.
We deserve better. Vote on Nov. 6.
Caroline Baum, author of “Just What I Said,” is a Bloomberg View columnist.