Jonah Goldberg

Uncle Sam now owes more on his credit cards than he makes in a year. The national debt passed the total U.S. GDP this week. Mull that over for a bit.

Now mull this over: Until the budget deal this week, the federal government borrowed 40 cents for every dollar it spent.

And the budget deal didn't do very much to change that. It "cut" $2 trillion over 10 years, which means Uncle Sam will overspend slightly less. If we hold to the deal -- and who among us doubts that Congress won't keep its word? -- spending will "only" increase by $1.8 trillion over 10 years. That's because in the topsy-turvy, laugh-clown-laugh world of so-called baseline budgeting, we've been talking about trimming the rate of increase. Think of Uncle Sam walking in a wind tunnel leading to insolvency. The cuts increased the headwind he has to walk into, but they don't do anything like force him to turn around.

More importantly, there are no structural reforms. It's the difference between trimming the grass and re-landscaping the lawn.

Now, the one great advantage the forces of the status quo have had in the budget debates over the last year is that they like the current system. Recall that the Democrats' preferred position was a "clean" debt-ceiling hike (no spending cuts at all), and President Obama's original budget called for increasing the deficit and extending the status quo until he was re-elected, if not into retirement.

In May, when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was asked what her plan was to fix Medicare, she responded, "We have a plan, it's called Medicare."

And whenever someone proposed serious reforms to the current system -- i.e., actual landscaping -- the Pelosi crowd responded that the reforms wouldn't solve the problem. And since they don't go far enough, why do anything at all?

Rep. Paul Ryan came up with one such plan. It was once called "The Path to Prosperity" but is now known as the only budget that has actually passed a congressional vote.

Anyway, the response from Democrats and liberal policy wonks was ridicule. It doesn't solve the problem! It actually increases the debt over the next 10 years! It ends Medicare as we know it! Republicans are hypocrites! Oh, and: Bush!

They sounded like slacker teenagers sitting on the couch mocking your inadequate techniques for putting out the fire in your living room. "Get back to me when you have a real plan to put out the fire, Dad."

So, look, if the intelligent and sophisticated position is that your budget numbers don't have to add up, can't we do a lot better than this? Over the last 10 years the federal government doubled in size, in terms of spending. Doubled. Do you feel like you're getting twice the value out of government you got 10 years ago? Is it really so absurd to suggest that we didn't live in a state of government-deficient anarchy in the year 2001? I mean, it wasn't quite Thunderdome, was it?

Opponents of radical changes to the tax code -- say, the Fair Tax, or a flat tax, or VAT system, or some other variation -- whine that such schemes wouldn't raise enough revenue. It seems to me there are two reasonable responses to this. First, no one really knows if that's true. A truly radical change to the tax system that doesn't punish work or savings just might generate massive growth (or at least a lot more growth than the non-growth we have now). A lot more growth, even with lower tax rates, would generate a lot more revenue. Certainly the one thing we've all learned from the last few years is that no expert is infallible, and the ones who've defended the status quo are very fallible.

Second, the current system is doing a pretty terrible job already. Seems to me that if it's OK to take in $1 for every $1.40 you spend, that leaves a pretty big margin of error for us to try out a better system, right? I mean, surely we can bankrupt ourselves less expensively?

While I don't think you can throw seniors currently dependent on the system under the bus, it's time to think big. Really big. But that requires leadership that amounts to more than talking "Yes We Can!" while walking "No We Can't!"


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the forthcoming book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
 
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