The federal government paused at the edge of the fiscal cliff and decided to look before it leapt. Last week the Senate passed a compromise bill, which raised some taxes and postponed most discussion about spending cuts, and the House moaned and complained and finally decided to pass the bill too. Then President Obama had his autopen sign the bill into law, as he headed back to Hawaii to finish his Christmas vacation.
We have not averted the crisis, but we’ve decided to ease into it. We all know what’s down in that abyss—higher taxes, massive spending cuts, or both—and we’re going down, one way or another. We can scale down rationally, BASE jump boldly, or get pushed over.
But for now, the federal government has paused at the edge to catch its breath. What does this breather look like for the rest of us? Higher taxes on Americans making more than $400,000 a year, the expiration of the payroll tax holiday (which means payroll taxes will be going back up to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent), and a vague promise from Congress to get serious about those spending cuts, in a couple of months. No one in Congress will enjoy this task, especially with constituents to please and elections to win. And besides, why ruin the holiday season by making unpopular decisions?
Bringing down the nation’s debt will take time and hard work. Politicians, however, tend to get distracted easily. They’ve got until March to ponder ways to scale this cliff, but they’ll probably spend the next two months painting the guardrail instead of forming a plan of descent.
But it’s not just Congress who needs a plan. Our government got us into this mess because, by and large, we’ve asked them to. They’ve given us what we wanted over the years, and we didn’t want to imagine that it wouldn’t be sustainable. Perhaps we should all reflect on where that deficit spending is going.
Everyone has a quick answer for where the money went. The left screams that defense spending is out of control, and they point to the fact that defense spending amounts to more than half of federal discretionary spending. However, they don’t tell you that “discretionary spending” is only a third of the overall federal budget. Unless you plan to eliminate the entire military, you still have a long way to go in spending cuts.
The right claims that we spend too much money on aid programs, like welfare and food stamps. Just this morning I had a conversation with a friend who claimed that he could solve the budget problems by eliminating food stamps, subsidized telephones, and the post office. But the cost of all these programs together is piddling compared to where real reform needs to take place.
There’s one part of the equation that few dare discuss: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid account for almost half the federal budget. Any serious attempt to lower the nation’s debt must include massive reforms to these two programs.
Unfortunately for Congress, these two programs are pretty popular with people who vote, and not just the elderly. Most Americans aren’t ready to have granny living in the spare bedroom.
Everyone, not just the rich, will need to pay more to the government, unless we, as a nation, change how we view end-of-life care. Right now Americans want to keep the elderly out of sight and out of mind, letting the federal government manage them. This frees younger Americans to pursue their dreams. Remember the American dream: get the house, get one or two kids, get rid of the kids, and spend twenty years collecting seashells in Florida. Caring for an elderly parent or grandparent is not part of America’s normal.
For a country that once prided itself on adhering to Christian principles, we’ve done a fairly rotten job of honoring our fathers and mothers. Americans expect the state to fulfill our Christian and familial devotion, and for some reason we’re all surprised that it didn’t go well. Until American expectations change, American finances won’t.
For many Americans this will amount to a lower standard of living, because either a husband or a wife will be required to forgo full-time employment to care for an ailing parent. Instead of parents and children viewing this situation as a burden to be alleviated by the state, we must believe that fulfilling the fifth commandment is an honorable Christian sacrifice. During times of economic instability, when retirement accounts fail, the community, especially the Church, should ensure that the vulnerable members of society are being cared for.
Relying on the state has engendered in us an unhealthy individualism, and fixing our financial crisis will require a renewed spirit of familial interdependence. Most of us will be reluctant to give up our benefits, but American society needs to undergo a structural shift. Figuring this out could take a while, and it’s bound to be uncomfortable.
It’s not just Congress who is poised on the edge of this fiscal cliff taking a deep breath. We’re all there. Every last American should be reflecting on our nation’s priorities and the tough choices ahead. I’m afraid, however, that most of us will convince ourselves that we’re not to blame for the nation’s debt and that we never benefited from all that money spent. Of course we’ll be lying to ourselves. We’re the problem; Congress’s budget is just the symptom.
Collin Garbarino is assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University.
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