Eric Jome
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For the sake of simplicity, I'll be using an easy to read diagram available on Wikipedia - it's based on data from the Congressional Budget Office. But, before some solutions, let's go over how we got here;

We are spending a lot more than we have on hand to spend. We've been doing this for a while. This means we have a large debt. But also that we are continuing to fall deeper into debt. Because we are very rich and continue to get richer, it is not clear that this debt or this deficit is certainly a serious problem, but by and large, most people in the United States it seems are very concerned about the issue. Over time, there is a chance, perhaps even a likely chance, that we'll have a debt crisis - that is, we'd be unable to pay our bills. This would cause serious damage to the wealth of the nation, perhaps the world, so it is worth considering a plan to remove this concern.

There are, at a simple level, two plans that can be used to fix this situation. These are raising more revenue, presumably through taxes, and reducing costs, presumably through spending cuts. It seems likely that a real solution will probably involve both these things in some ratio. Let's take a look first at spending cuts;

If you'll look at the graph to which I earlier linked, we can see that there are 4 major slices to the pie;

Defense 20%
Social Security 20%
Medicare & Medicaid 23%
Other discretionary spending 19%

How can we have simple, fair, clear, and effective reductions? Insisting that the cuts come completely from any one of these areas is probably an extreme position - a more fair compromise to suggest all should give something.

Defense - Bring it in line with other nations by GDP

First, then, is Defense. The United States is the dominant military power in the world today, spending more than the next 20 nations combined on its armed forces. It was unfortunately drawn into an arms race with the Soviet Union through the latter half of the 20th century and this caused a massive ballooning of the Defense budget. While this practice was instrumental in winning the Cold War by bankrupting the Soviet Union, it is no longer required. Indeed, the current global climate of peace and stability is only threatened by minor bush wars and criminal terrorism, not transglobal warfare on the scale of the 1940's. Indeed, lessons hard learned from that period indicate that devotion to globalization, economic interdependence, and democratic values are the best defenses against large scale conventional war. It is clear then that Defense could easily be afforded a large cut - we just don't need this kind of might and are wasting our resources maintaining it. Let's plan then to have the US spend as much as only the next 6 nations on it's defense.

This means spending US$383,863,000,000 instead of US$687,105,000,000, a drop of US$303,242,000,000. This would be 2.07% of GDP, which is inline with what other first world nations are spending. This may seem like a lot to cut, but it is still vastly more than any other nation spends. Defense can easily be maintained at this level as no other nation in history has ever come close to the might this supports.

Social Security - Helping "old" people avoid poverty

Next, Social Security. What is Social Security? In answering that question, we need to understand what the world was like before it was created... in 1935. At that time, the idea of retiring after a long life working was novel or non-existent. If you wanted to retire, you had to save or have a pension - something available only to the wealthy - and, it was deemed by a majority of Americans at the time, that too many people outlived what meager savings they might have if any. We're just not good at saving. Working, however, we are very good at. So, a simple program is conceived - the government will mandate a savings program for all of the citizens, taking some of their wages in taxes and paying it to the oldest and poorest citizens to alleviate poverty and suffering in their dotage. When the worker is old, they will receive the same benefits, paid for by those working then. And so on.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that the baby boom that followed World War II is what is threatening the governments ability to keep this charitable exercise going. That isn't really the problem. The problem is that we are all living a lot longer than was ever anticipated that we might live.

In 1935, the average life expectancy of a person was 62. Today, it is 79. The original Social Security program intended to pay people at age 62 - remember, the point of the program is not to give people a generous pension payout through their late middle age. It is intended to prevent seniors from living and dying in poverty. So, as we done in earlier decades, clearly we need to up the age at which benefits are paid out.

If the average life expectancy has gone up 17 years, a reasonable compromise increase then might be 10 years from the original program. Social Security benefits should be paid out at 75. This maintains the original purpose of the program. This change can be phased in over time to reduce the problem... and will need to come with a change in normal retirement to later in life as well.

Medicare & Medicaid - Health care as a public necessity, like electricity

What is the essential problem with health care? Well, as any person who is sick will tell you, they'll spend any amount of money to be well again. And the people providing these services are well aware that there is no real top on the amount people are willing to pay for good health. This leads to an ever spiraling increase in costs.

At some point, many modern democratic capitalist economies reach a level of wealth where the citizens expect as a basic component of their standard of living electric light. At first, it is a luxury, afforded only by the wealthy. Later, as the service grows, it becomes an industry. But then over time, we've found that the entire nation becomes entirely based on electricity as a main power source for day to day life. We cannot live without it; that is, we cannot enjoy anything like the standard of living we desire without it. An unregulated industry in this situation can, according to basic economic principles, charge anything it likes for this service.

Which is why almost everywhere the cost of power is regulated by the government. It is in the public interest to prevent industry from pricing this huge asset to the quality of life outside the reach of citizens. But business is only regulated, not state operated. Costs are controlled, but flexible.

Similarly, it seems, medical care is too a fundamental component of the quality of life for a society once they reach a certain level of affluence. Thus, similarly, the state needs to control costs for basic services to prevent the industry from charging rates that would break the citizens - while at the same time allowing plenty of profit making opportunity for the industry as well.

Clearly, costs of health care are spiraling out of control because people are willing to pay any amount for the care. Only regulation of costs at the national or state level will control costs. And this asset - the ability to supply all the citizens with some basic level of medical care - is in the main interest of the state.

Merging these programs into a national health care option, a basic plan with basic options to secure for all citizens a minimal level of health care is the proper solution. It is widely employed by other nations. It leaves open the option for greater coverage and more expensive care for the wealthy while steamlining, minimizing, and baselining the costs to the government.

Just what is that "discretionary" pile then?

This is an unfair part of the picture. To draw it fairly, it would be tens of thousands of little slices. This is, in effect, each representative getting something for their constituents back home... build that bridge? Fund that research? Help those foreigners? Money allocated by Congress each year to pay for special projects here and there.

And this makes it the hardest to cut. This is the grease that enables the movement of the wheels of state. The fundamental currency of democratic government is compromise - you help me pass my bill and I'll help you pass yours. I'll support your appropriations if you'll support mine.

Without a radical new direction heretofore completely unheard of, it will be difficult to rein this in. Perhaps if it were tied to population? That would prevent us spending it where it works best or does most.

Perhaps the only fair limit would be setting it to not exceed a total fraction of GDP without a super majority passing the additional expenditures, linking that cost to revenue increases like taxes or sale of assets.

Conclusions

The sad truth of the matter is that, while all these are very centrist, direct, clear, obvious solutions, none of them have any chance of passing in this political climate. During the 1990's, various political elements, to further their agendas, radicalized the public discourse - it gets people to the polls to manipulate them with fear and anger. Instead of having a vision or believing in a destiny or following noble goals of equity and prosperity, our nation today is mired in ideological polarization. It's a world of campaigning, not compromising, of grandstanding, not negotiating. People in the center, operating from principled, even handed positions are marginalized by the shouting and sabre rattling from the wings of the spectrum.

Thanks for reading. You may now flame away.
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Quote:
...following noble goals of equity...


The huge division is likely because everyone defines this differently. If we could get everyone on board with what "equity" meant, then this would all be easy.
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Shane Yeager
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Let's get past the idea that Social Security is in any way a retirement program, and call it the entitlement program that it is. Means testing for SS benefits needs to happen, and would solve long term sustainability issues and reduce current deficits at the same time.

The issue with raising the retirement age is one of fairness between demographic groups, as even right now the current age produces an outcome where we tax poor black men (life expectancy ~69) to give to white women (LE just over 80.) Even manual labor vs. sedentary labor makes a huge impact on an appropriate retirement age.

I'm on board with reducing defense spending, but I think an immediate drop in spending to the proposed GDP level would likely cause huge instability. Perhaps reducing defense spending slowly over a period of years, in order to give other nations time to ramp up to fill the gaps as appropriate? (Cue hawks claiming China cackling with glee.)

What would be awesome to stop is politicians using children and the elderly as human shields. When the first budget cuts hit the weakest members of society rather than top-heavy bureaucracy and sacred cows, we can tell there is little real interest in making the cuts in the first place.
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Eric Jome
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SpaceGhost wrote:
Quote:
...following noble goals of equity...


The huge division is likely because everyone defines this differently. If we could get everyone on board with what "equity" meant, then this would all be easy.


I mean here something rather simplistic and altruistic - equal service from the state. That is, it is only a guiding principle, not a rigorous, mathematical concept. If we say we will pay for something, we do. If we deem something - collectively - to have been worth of our spending on it, we do.

Take Social Security, for example. In this case, the people felt that living and dying in poverty was sufficiently contrary to our core values that it was worth collecting money from the citizens to alleviate the problem. We can discuss ranges of benefits, but it is not a moderate point of view to suggest absolutely nothing or a total social safety net - neither would be equitable.
 
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LeeDambis wrote:
No flames here. I'm not up to Googling and doing the math this late on a Friday night, but it seems as though implementing all of these cuts would result in an immediate budget surplus (assuming we could trim that 19% "other" category by the same 55% that you're cutting defense spending).


Perhaps. If so, it would be immoral not to pair this with significant tax cuts. The government should not collect funds for which it does not have an immediate, planned use.

Quote:
It could be that the reason we don't have the kind of toxic international environment that we've usually had in the past is a consequence of the U.S. continuing to outpsend everyone else by such a large margin.


Well, there is oceans of widely accepted political theory and research to state that globalization builds interdependence and interdependence builds peace. The main causes of previous wars, cited commonly by historians, are imperialism on the part of powers with might to spare on adventures or economic acquisitions.
 
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cosine wrote:
In 1935, the average life expectancy of a person was 62. Today, it is 79.


This is relatively meaningless since the reason life expectancy has ballooned is because drops in mortality rates at infancy through age ten have been enormous. In order to get an idea of what Social Security was intended to cover, you instead want to look at American life expectancy at age 65 (e.g. how much longer the average person will live once they're 65). In 1941 that was 10.2 years, according to the Social Security Administration's statistics. Today, it is 16.9 - or a difference of 6.7 years.

This is not nothing, but the point to be made here is that SS's designers both anticipated growth in lifespan and that it has not been nearly so dramatic as you suggest.

On top of that, life expectancy noticeably differs by income. A man aged 65 today who is rich (top 25% of income earners) has a life expectancy of 17.5 years. A man who is poor (bottom 25%) at age 65 has a life expectancy of 14.7 years. So by pushing Social Security's payout age upwards, you're actually making it less available to the very people it's designed to help.
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While I agree that SocSec and Medicare definitely need to be improved (the corporate welfare legislation that Congress passed through which - against all common sense - prohibits the government from using its position to negotiate a better rate is INSANITY), have you looked at your paycheck recently?

Notice how there is a line item for 'Social Security tax withheld' and 'Medicare tax withheld' alongside the 'Federal Income Tax withheld'?

Yeah, those two programs are completely funded separately from the revenue vs expense debate, so aren't a factor, here (both programs are currently still profitable when comparing the taxes collected to support them vs their expenses). These are a total red herring the Republicans like to drag up because, seriously, who doesn't hate poor people and want to see them suffer so they'd just work harder? AmIright? Who's with me? No? Well, anyway...

Defense, does, however, desperately need some pruning. For an extreme idea - the Army would be very good for fighting a World War. Also handy for invading and occupying a foreign nation.

Neither are things we should EVER be doing (at least, not on our own).

IMHO - disband the Army. Funnel a significant portion of its funding over to the Marines - we definitely DO need the ability to 'put boots on the ground' for actions we still want to perform (regime change missions, kill-the-terrorist-leader raids, etc) - and just stop spending the rest. The Navy and Air Force are perfectly capable of preventing any enemies from reaching our shores, and defending our international trade. If any enemy DOES somehow land a force, they have the State Defense Forces to deal with (which are funded at the state level, for the 22 states that maintain them). And we still have the Marines for 'surgical' ground assault missions or campaigns.

*bam*, there is $3 trillion over 10 years on its own, and our overall defense budget inches a *little* bit closer per capita (but still far larger than) every other first-world nation.
 
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cosine wrote:
For the sake of simplicity, I'll be using an easy to read diagram available on Wikipedia - it's based on data from the Congressional Budget Office.


FWIW - there is one slight misdirection in that graph. Last I checked, the 'overseas contingency operations' (IE., our occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and overall 'War on Terror' expenses) are included in the 'Discretionary' budget, rather than 'Defense Department'.

Disingenuous, I know, but it helps hides the true cost of our current military expenditures.
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I'll take Manhattan in a garbage bag. With Latin written on it that says "It's hard to give a shit these days"
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XanderF wrote:

IMHO - disband the Army. Funnel a significant portion of its funding over to the Marines - we definitely DO need the ability to 'put boots on the ground' for actions we still want to perform (regime change missions, kill-the-terrorist-leader raids, etc) - and just stop spending the rest. The Navy and Air Force are perfectly capable of preventing any enemies from reaching our shores, and defending our international trade. If any enemy DOES somehow land a force, they have the State Defense Forces to deal with (which are funded at the state level, for the 22 states that maintain them). And we still have the Marines for 'surgical' ground assault missions or campaigns.

*bam*, there is $3 trillion over 10 years on its own, and our overall defense budget inches a *little* bit closer per capita (but still far larger than) every other first-world nation.


What does disbanding the Army do to the unemployment rate? Yikes!
Also, there's enough Army men to make sure nobody that votes for something like that will EVER get elected for office.

If someone wanted to make the Army go away, it'd have to be done by stopping recruiting, and waiting for people to retire.
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DeltaAlphaBravo wrote:
Dems are sitting on the sideline and haven't passed any legislation to this point in their majority of congress to start the process of negotiation.


This is a bit of an unfair comparison. The House doesn't have filibuster rules and the Senate does; it's effectively impossible for the Democrats in the Senate to pass anything that doesn't have Republican support, and the Republicans in the Senate have so far refused to pass any of the bills the Democrats have put forward.

It's just one more part of the continuing failure of consensus-based politics in the United States.
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mightygodking wrote:
DeltaAlphaBravo wrote:
Dems are sitting on the sideline and haven't passed any legislation to this point in their majority of congress to start the process of negotiation.


This is a bit of an unfair comparison. The House doesn't have filibuster rules and the Senate does; it's effectively impossible for the Democrats in the Senate to pass anything that doesn't have Republican support, and the Republicans in the Senate have so far refused to pass any of the bills the Democrats have put forward.

It's just one more part of the continuing failure of consensus-based politics in the United States.
I'm not 100% sure, but thinking back to civics in high school, budgets are the job of the House and not the Senate, that is the purse-strings reside in the House. Senators might not even be allowed to propose budgets. Now why the President is allowed to do so (and takes heat for his proposals not passing!!!) I think is just a fluke of history. Personally I don't think the President should do as much as he does, but looking at how well our Congress performs I can see why it started.
 
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