This election seems to be focused on trivial things: from the size of Donald Trump’s fingers, to Hillary Clinton’s houses, to Ted Cruz’s facial features. While some major issues have been debated (immigration, ISIS, banking regulation), the vast majority of the nation’s problems have been disregarded — and perhaps the most important issue of all has been ignored. In the past year, hardly any of the candidates have engaged in a serious conversation regarding our extraordinary debt and deficits.
As I write this, our national debt stands at a breath-taking $19,249,726,000 — nearly $1 trillion more than our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And the numbers only continue to climb. Each day, our nation’s government borrows $4 billion dollars. In other words, it would take an average American 75,000 years to pay off one day of the nation’s debt. At the current rate, there will be no way to pay off the debt at any point in the future, as the nation’s leaders and political candidates seem to be ignoring the problem.
Of the 21 presidential candidates this year, only a handful (John Kasich, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush) put forward realistic plans to combat the nation’s deficits and debts. The current front-runners, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, rarely speak of the problem and have produced zero platforms on how to deal with the issue. At the same time, second-tier candidates Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) have issued plans that will only grow the problem. Though I support the idea of a flat tax, Cruz’s 10 percent flat tax would deprive the government of mass sums of revenue. While Cruz has put forward plans to cut spending, such cuts would not be enough to offset the massive declines in federal income. Furthermore, Sanders spending-spree, social-services platform is so ridiculously absurd that the nation’s deficits would rise to the highest levels in history. Though Sanders claims he will pay for these programs via tax increases, the majority of economists believe that a surge in taxes would not nearly be enough to cover such a vast expansion of the social services state.
Combatting our debt and deficits is not impossible. Many economists have produced policy papers that outline a clear path to debt reduction and deficit elimination (such as the famed Simpson-Bowles plan of 2010). Yet the nation has not embraced these proposals for one simple reason: the cuts in spending will be painful.
Over the past half-century, Americans have become addicted to government spending. The explosion of social services and defense costs have burdened our nation will immense expenses, yet few are willing to make sacrifices. Last semester, I wrote an article on how we must make drastic changes to Social Security before the program goes bankrupt. I suggested increasing the retirement age while also providing an opportunity for younger Americans to opt out of the program (a proposal that I took from the Simpson-Bowles report and George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign). The response I received was anything but supportive. Most believed that Social Security — the rapidly growing, second largest expense in the budget — should remain untouched. Americans desire so much to avoid economic pain, that they are willing to risk bankrupting the most important social safety net in the nation.
If the nation is to combat its ever growing debt, we must be willing to suffer some short-term consequences. Any cuts in the budget will inevitably hurt someone — yet pain is the only remedy to the problem. In my view, we must take a three prong approach to deficit reduction: entitlement reform, elimination of waste and revenue increases.
In terms of entitlement reform, the nation must make fundamental reforms to the structure of Social Security and Medicare. Combined, the two programs account for half of the nation’s budget — and they are growing at astronomical rates. Staring at the problem and hoping that it goes away will only result in the inevitable collapse of the institutions and an explosion in federal debt. Furthermore, we must be willing to cut the immense amount of waste within the government. From the vastly oversized Department of Defense to the army of federal employees, cuts must be made to unnecessary and inefficient programs, positions, and departments. Finally, increasing revenues must be a top priority. To accomplish this, our leaders should not look to increasing taxes — a move that has consistently been shown to weaken the economy. Instead, the government must foster a competitive economic environment that grows wages and the number of jobs. Congress must be willing to implement common-sense regulations, curb burdensome regulations, simplify the absurdly complex tax code and end the crony capitalism that harms small and medium-sized businesses.
Certainly, fighting the war on debt will be painful for most Americans. Yet our nation cannot watch the problem, cross our fingers and hope it magically disappears. Action is the only solution to the problem — and it seems that the candidates in this election have embraced anything but action on the issue.
Michael Glanzel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Cornell Shrugged appears alternate Thursdays this semester.