Farm subsidies are a metaphor for our larger predicament. We no longer have the luxury — as we did for decades — of carrying marginal, ineffectual or wasteful programs. We can no longer afford subsidies for those who don’t need them or, at least, don’t need so many of them (including affluent Social Security and Medicare recipients). If we can’t eliminate the least valuable spending, then we will be condemned to perpetually large deficits, huge tax increases or indiscriminate cuts in many federal programs, the good as well as the bad.
Despite a deficit obsession, Americans still seem ill-informed about the magnitude of the gaps. A recent CBO report is illuminating. Even with a full economic recovery, current policies imply annual deficits over the next decade averaging 5 percent of the economy (gross domestic product); by 2022, federal debt to GDP would hit 90 percent (the 2007 figure: 36 percent). Balancing the budget in 2020 would require $1 trillion of spending cuts or tax increases. The recent “fiscal cliff” agreement hardly alters these forecasts because it closes only about 8 percent of the next decade’s projected deficits, estimates the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.