Point of View

A fiscal-ditch deal that makes no difference

January 2, 2013 

Leave it to 500-odd partisan ideologues in Washington to manufacture a crisis – real or imagined – and “resolve” it with such nail-biting drama. The cruel joke on all of us is that no fiscal cliff deal, now or in the future, is likely to make any difference to the long-term health of this country.

The deal passed by the Senate and House would raise several hundred billion dollars over 10 years, while the federal deficit continues to rock along at a trillion per year. Some deal.

The reason that the fiscal cliff deal will make no difference is that our budget problems are long-term, not short, and the long-term spending changes needed to fix the mess are so politically toxic that no elected official can be expected to vote for or even propose them, and survive the next election.

Let’s take Social Security, for instance. By labeling it an “entitlement,” our society has created a culture in which these benefits are viewed as sacrosanct, despite their really being an institution of grace. This program admittedly was well-intentioned – providing for retirees who after many years of productivity can no longer provide for themselves due to old age and failing health.

But prescription drug ads abound with barely gray retirees in prime physical condition, living the good life. These unrealistic images have created unrealistic expectations: opulent, drudge-free lifestyles spanning 25 years or more.

For my part, since I don’t foresee Social Security being any help (or even around) when I grow old, I plan to work until I’m 75 – and maybe we all should. As our life expectancies get longer and our health at 60 or 70 gets better, should we not be productive members of society for longer, too? Raising the retirement age to 75 (and providing for periodic review and adjustment of the retirement age) would put the single largest federal budget item – Social Security– back on a path of healthy sustainability.

But good luck getting Congress to actually do it. Raising the retirement age would be highly unpopular, if only because we see this generation of retirees as well-off and we want our piece of cake, too. In France, when President Sarkozy proposed raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, protesters virtually shut the country down. There is little reason to think that our country would react much differently, even if raising the retirement age is necessary for our own fiscal health.

Let’s take another low-hanging fruit: the defense budget. One clear way to eliminate waste is to refrain from funding major weapons systems that the military doesn’t ask for; another might be to extend accompanied tours of duty (cutting down on the obscenely large cost of moving all those people around all the time).

The problem with this solution is that large-scale defense spending is good for the economies of virtually every state, as demonstrated in the 1980s when defense spending was ratcheted up. Even if the unnecessary spending could be cut, doing so would be unlikely to make a significant dent in the defense budget, because several other defense costs are going to rise in the foreseeable future.

One cost will be the replenishment of equipment, a necessary and expected event after fighting two major wars. Another will be the cost of guarding and defending against several national security threats that are not receding but growing, including North Korea, Iran and radical Islamism. As costly as maintaining overseas bases is, we cannot scale them back at this time.

The two cases above are the easy ones. If Congress can’t even tackle the easy problems, we can hardly expect it to solve the hard ones. The Great Fiscal Cliff Deal tackles neither. Plus ça change.

Davis Brown of Salisbury is a political science professor at Maryville University of St. Louis.

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