Victor Davis Hanson

Fourth, politicians promise the easy cutting of generic "waste and fraud," "foreign aid" or "unnecessary wars." The problem, however, is that waste, wars, and aid this year probably account for less than 5 percent of the federal budget. In contrast, more than 60 percent of yearly spending is devoted to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and Defense apart from war expenditures. Budgetary discipline is impossible without a no-holds-barred discussion of demography, increased longevity, and the national-security perils of unsustainable national debt.

Fifth, self-interest governs the entire debate. Roughly half the public pays no income tax. And roughly half of America either receives all of its income or a large part of it from the federal government. Beneficiaries vote for higher taxes on others and still more benefits for themselves. Benefactors obviously prefer fewer payouts for others and lower taxes on themselves.

Yet political affiliation is not always a clear guide. Despite public rhetoric, many conservatives will privately object to the cutting of any federal benefits they receive, while high-earning liberals might quietly resent having to pay increased taxes to be spent on others.

Sixth, there is always a "you go first" element to budget cutting. The party that imposes discipline is demagogued, even as its opportunistic opposition usually claims credit for the improved economy that follows from the responsible policies of others.

What can the public do? Americans should laud any politician of either party who has the courage to balance budgets, and they should hold accountable any who do not. Budget cutting may be depressing, but not as depressing as bankruptcy (ask the French and Greeks). Do not forget that just as households become upbeat when mortgages and credit cards are paid off, so too will Americans collectively recover their optimism and sense of pride when we are admired abroad for our fiscal sobriety rather than ridiculed for our spending addiction.

look at it this way: In terms of our collective health and national security, a budget surplus is probably worth more than an expanded federal health-care entitlement, another Social Security cost-of-living increase, or a new aircraft carrier.

Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.