Sunday, August 21, 2011

No Easy Answers to the Budget, or Anything Else

It's campaign season again, the time when the tooth fairy, the leprechaun, Aladdin's Lamp, the four leaf clover, and every other lucky charm is invoked by some candidates as they make promises that are virtually impossible to keep.

"Want the U.S. to have a balanced budget? Vote for me!" "Want to buy gas for $2.00/gallon? Vote for me!" "Want to see millions of new jobs materialize in months? Vote for me!" "Want someone to dismantle the welfare state? Vote for me!" I suppose campaign season, like rutting season for the big bucks, can always be counted on to bring on outrageous behavior in hopes of getting some attention. With so many candidates vying for tomorrow's headline, going "over the top" may be the only way to score. So, Ben Bernanke will be "treasonous" if he loosens the money supply before the 2012 election, for example.

I wish it was easy to solve America's problems. It would be great if all the so-called Washington experts in politics and finance were wrong and the populists were right. I'd be delighted if Texas solutions could magically cure the American economy, just like I would have been delighted if "Just say no" had eliminated pregnancies for unwed mothers. However, reality has a way of kicking wishful thinking into the gutter. There are just no easy answers to the budget, or anything else. If there were, they'd already have been passed by the congress and signed by the president, since public opinion would force the politicians to do the obvious.

So, here we are in election season, waiting for a candidate with the magic touch, someone who will kiss and heal the boo-boo's that cover our nation like bruises on a defeated boxer. Perhaps it's not so strange that we're willing to listen to the ridiculous - "any port in a storm" is better than no port at all when the ship seems to be sinking. But, as the months of silly season wear on and we get close the vote-counting day, and the explanations for getting to $2 gas blow away like the fall leaves, we've got to get more serious and decide whose medicine we're really willing to take.

Will we cut defense spending by at least 1/3rd, putting a million more people out of work? Will we increase the social security retirement age and freeze payments for those who have assets exceeding a certain level? Will we require increased Medicare contributions from all recipients and reduce the procedures that some people will qualify for? Will we stop guaranteeing many student loads because so many of them are never repaid? Will we cut back the incredibly expensive care that the government now funds for people with special needs? Will we....?

Sadly, none of the lucky charms in candidate's pockets will work. In the end, it will come down to hard choices about giving things up - things that even the Tea Party won't want to forego. So, buckle your seat belts, folks, 'cause we'll be riding a rough political road for the next few years. Don't you mind too much about the wild statements we'll all be hearing - they're only the equivalent of promises made by carnival barkers, soon to be proven wildly overstated. Let's listen for those who state simple facts and propose simple choices, like "guns or butter", as they used to say in my economics class. In the end, the solutions to many of our problems will lie in the things we are willing to give up.