Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What I learned in the Boy Scouts

Many years ago, I was a Boy Scout.  In fact, not that it matters, I'm an Eagle Scout.  So is my son, which doesn't matter at all, but I'm very proud of his accomplishments too.  Anyway, the Boy Scouts taught me many things.  There's that motto:  Be Prepared!  That's still pretty good advice.

More specifically, I'm thinking right now about what I learned about getting (or being) lost.  The first, and most important lesson, was this...

As soon as you "discover" you're lost, stop moving.

The idea, of course, is that once you've figured out you no longer know where you are, moving about just makes it worse.  You'll get "more lost."  Actual studies of lost people document that they do some of the worst possible things, always thinking they're doing the Right Thing.

Now, my point at this moment is this:  The government of the United States is pretty clearly lost.  As a whole, it has no idea where it's going, and, obviously, no idea how to get to this place that it can't identify.  Unfortunately, it's also doing a really terrible job of not moving, so it's getting more lost every hour.

Let's take this one step at a time.

Assuming you've discovered that you're lost, you begin by sitting down.  After you settle down a little, you do two things.

Step one is to take inventory of what resources you have.  Today, if you're lost in the wilderness, that might mean pulling out a cell phone, or consulting a GPS unit, assuming you have either one.  Back in my day, it meant take out your map (you better have one!) and see what you can match between the terrain and the paper.  In other words, step one is See if you can figure out where you are.  Makes perfect sense, right?

Step two, which wasn't quite as clearly delineated in the Boy Scout manual, is...figure out how you got here.  That doesn't mean moving, it means looking at the steps that led you to this point, probably while looking at the map, and see if you can determine where you went astray and how to get back.  If you do this, you'll either find a solution, or conclude that you're better off staying put and waiting for others to find you.

So, for the sake of this discussion, let's assume we've completed Step One.  We're in a mess.  In fact, we're waist deep in lots of messes.  We can argue about which one, or ones, are most important, but it doesn't really matter.  Let's just agree we've got some serious problems.  Since the most significant problem, at least in the last few weeks, has been the the debt and accumulated deficit, let's tackle that one.

The first conclusion is easy: we're in debt because we have spent more money than we take in.  Not every year, but most years.  There's a reason for that, but for the most part, the truth is we spend more than we take in because Congress wanted to spend that money.  After all, only Congress can spend money.  The President, whomever he is, can only spend what Congress authorizes, so let's remember that.  The President can't create debt!

Now, if we want to reverse that, we need to spend less money than we take in.  That way, the excess can be applied to reducing the debt.  Pretty simple idea.  However, like all things Governmental, it's not that easy.

So, my suggestion is let's begin by looking at where we got the debt, and maybe that will offer some ideas about how to get rid of it.  After all, if if the problem is actually A, fixing B won't address the problem.  Some readers might feel I'm trying to create blame here, but the facts are the facts, and if someone was responsible then they should accept the responsibility.  Remember, these are facts, supported by real numbers.

If we look at the accumulated debt, as a percentage of GDP, which is the way most economists evaluate it, the largest single factor, especially going forward, is the tax cuts initiated under George W Bush.  The second largest factor is the cost of the two wars initiated under George W Bush.  The third factor, just slightly smaller than all the debt accumulated prior to 2000, is TARP, the Wall Street bail-out program, enacted in 2008 and signed by George W Bush.  You can see those actual numbers here:  http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2011/05/chart-bush-policies-dominant-cause-of-debt.php

Now, looking at it another way, the eight years of the Bush presidency resulted in the largest increase in our debt since the beginning, more than $4T.  If you believe that the Obama presidency is worse, I suggest you look at this comparison, which shows both timeframes, with Obama projected as an eight year Presidency.  http://front.moveon.org/wow-the-one-chart-that-should-accompany-debt-ceiling-discussions/?rc=tw.fol

So, it's pretty easy to see how we got here.  We, which means Congress, decided that they would spend more money, and voluntarily decided (via the tax cuts) that they would collect less money.

So, back to being a Boy Scout now, let's look at what to do to get "un-lost."  Assuming we want to get back to 2000, when President Bill Clinton presented a budget that had a surplus and was paying down the debt, we need to do a couple things.  Three actually.

Step one:  Allow the tax cuts to expire.  Remember, when the rates were higher...we had much better employment figures and the economy was pretty stable.  Don't fall for that propaganda about Job Creators, because those mysterious people have had their cuts for ten years, and...well, looking at 9%+ unemployment pretty well shows that's not working.

Step two:  Cut the spending on the wars.  That's already happening as both Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.  I doubt we can accelerate that process much, but if Iraq (as has been suggested) wants American troops to stay longer, then at the very least, they should pay the bill.  I don't like leaving them there, but for the moment we're focused on the debt.

Step three:  Honestly evaluate future spending.  Congress says they want to eliminate earmarks, but they still put them in.  The Department of Defense said they didn't want or need a second engine supplier for the F-22, but Congress tried to fund it anyway.  That sort of thing has to stop, and if Congress is going to complain about the debt, they need to begin by looking in the mirror.  They're the only ones who can create the bills that come due!

There is waste in government.  We all know that.  We may not agree on what is waste, but there is money to be saved there, and if the members of Congress want to truly represent the American people, then part of their job is to find it and get rid of it.  That means everything, from Medicare to Defense, should be examined carefully.  There are billions to be saved in there, so find it!

In the end, we can find our way back.  We have all the tools we need.  It's time to stop thrashing about in the wilderness, sit down calmly, and honestly look at how we got here.  For Congress, just read your mail.  The people are telling you how to get back.  We're tired of you being lost too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love your analogies! And I agree: the facts are the facts! Your solution simply makes sense.