LLOYD GRAY: Our fiscal state isn’t owed just to politicians

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

A vote is expected today on the health care reform bill in the U.S. House. The heated national debate on that and other size-and-scope of government issues, combined with the official advent of spring today, make this as good a time as any to renew a perennial theme from this corner.
It’s this: As a general rule, Americans get from their elected officials what they want. And what we’ve signaled that we want, notably since the mid-1990s on, is more from government without having to pay for it.
In short, we want higher spending and lower taxes. We don’t want to make a choice between the two. And then we wonder why budget deficits and the national debt balloon.
Politicians, some of them at least, aren’t dumb. Their first instinct is political survival, however ignoble that may seem to us in our moments of contempt for them. They prosper at the ballot box by giving us what we want and by avoiding doing things we don’t want, like raising our taxes.
It’s not a recipe for fiscal responsibility.
Whenever somebody comes up with a solution that requires sacrifice on anybody’s part, somebody screams.
Reduce Medicare or Social Security benefits, even just a little bit? The politician that proposes it stands to be drawn and quartered.
Raise everybody’s taxes to shore up these entitlements that are dragging us toward fiscal ruin? Forget it, that’s an attack on the politically beloved middle class.
Make those who can afford it get a little less of these benefits and pay a little more? No, that’s “class warfare” or “socialism.”
It’s the height of irony – or to be less kind, hypocrisy – that many of those who raise cain the most about the potential cost of health care reform are adamantly against any reduction in Medicare benefits but have offered no viable solution to get that program on sound financial footing.
The notion that we can solve our fiscal problems by eliminating a few federal departments and cutting out the villainous earmarks is a pleasant but delusional assumption. What is dragging us down is our refusal to look seriously at the real cost of the entitlements we’ve created and our unwillingness to bear those costs.
And of course there’s the business of fighting two expensive wars simultaneously without our political leaders asking for the slightest sacrifice from anyone except the people fighting them and their families.
We might surmise that the recent backlash against the health care bill and other expansions of government’s role and the national debt signal a coming to terms with the reality of our fiscal state. But even those protests don’t seem – in a coherent way at least – to view individual citizens as having any responsibility for what has happened. It’s all the politicians’ fault, and if we just get rid of the whole bunch, we’ll be better off.
What, then, would we tell the newly elected who inherit the mess? Keep the entitlements we like – just don’t spend any more on somebody else? Don’t ask us to pay more in taxes or take less in benefits to help get things under control?
When we finally come to terms with the hard fact that our attitude is a big part of the problem, we’ll be getting somewhere.
We either should expect less from government – in ways that make a real difference in how much government costs – or we should be willing to pay for what we demand. There’s no evidence, for now at least, that most people want to do away with Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, college loan programs, home ownership incentives and the myriad of other government programs or tax breaks that benefit hard-working people on all levels of the economic spectrum.
States everywhere, including Mississippi, face hard budget choices as well, even if most states are in far better fiscal health than the federal government. There are, for example, still questions of whether we can have the kind of education system at all levels that we say we want without a willingness to pay more for it.
But it’s the federal government where fiscal calamity awaits if nothing is done. Politicians of all stripes have taken their cue from us: Don’t cut the spending we like, and for heaven’s sake don’t raise our taxes.
Somewhere, somehow, something’s got to give, and putting a bunch of new people in office won’t do any good if they keep hearing the same old song from the people who send them there.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@djournal.com.