The Washington Post

What I’ve missed

There's so much I've missed in life during these last few months as I've labored on my writing project: Family dinners, movies, major sporting events, the fellowship of my friends. But most of all, I've missed chances to discuss the nation's fiscal situation. This is a searing pain in my soul. But you can't ever get those chances back. The president's budget comes out every year in early February. This year I was too busy to fulminate about it, too busy to remonstrate or dismiss or despair, and now the opportunity is gone forever.

What I would have said, of course, is that our nation's leaders continue to lack the political courage to face our gravest long-term fiscal threats. You know the whole speech. They're like Reagan flexing America's Cold War muscle by invading Grenada.

Looking at the worrisome graph in today's paper (I've been gone so long -- do people still say "today's paper"?), we see that interest on the debt is set to become a bigger expense for the country than Medicaid (in 2013), domestic discretionary spending (2014) and Medicare (2018), according to Obama's budget projections. The projections, of course, are just guesses, since no one knows what the real interest rates will be -- what amount of interest investors will demand in exchange for buying Treasury notes. It's conceivable that they'll continue to loan the Treasury money at extremely low rates, but you wouldn't want to bank on that. Only the feebleness of the global economy in the last couple of years has allowed the country to borrow at rates close to zero. As the economy recovers, the rates will go up. And then suddenly we're trying to roll over trillions in debt at 3, 4, 5 percent rates, and the whole thing becomes, like, the proverbial runaway metaphor. Yes: The locomotive over the waterfall. Hideous.

But here's the one good thing to come of this: Both the liberals and conservatives will have triumphed ideologically. The Pentagon budget, long a target of liberals, will shrink in proportion to the overall economy. Discretionary government programs, hated by the conservatives, will also shrink. The only things that will grow as a percentage of the economy will be the entitlement programs and, until 2021 at least, the interest on the debt.

If you're a policy maker and you want to know what to cut to make the fiscal picture better, the decision has already been made for you. It was made for you by the people who were in office in the past 50 years. And, no, it's not "earmarks."

That's what I would have said if I hadn't been so busy. Or something like that.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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