Group Think: The opposite of traditional ''groupthink,'' our Group Think poses one question to a variety of smart thinkers for insightful perspectives on relevant issues.

Let’s Pay for Our Priorities

  • submit to reddit

Scott Bittle

Imagining a positive outcome for a strategy as dumb as the fiscal cliff is a challenge. If all the provisions went into force, the cliff would, in fact, do a lot to put the budget on a sustainable course. But the price is potentially another recession, which we can’t afford. Whenever I think about our leaders concocting the cliff idea, it’s hard not to recall the famous justification for bold action in Animal House: “What this situation calls for is a really futile, stupid gesture on somebody’s part–and we’re just the guys to do it!”

But that defines the problem in Washington terms, and I’m convinced those are the wrong terms. Everyone is searching for a budget deal Washington can accept. My ideal outcome would be to use this opportunity to get a deal the public — the vast majority of Americans outside the Beltway — can accept.

Budgets are about choices. They’re about deciding, as a nation, what should be done and what we’re willing to pay to do it. The tradeoffs may get ugly, but that’s precisely why public support is so important. No budget deal is worth anything unless the American people can say, “Yes, this is what needs to be done. I may not like it, but I can live with it.”

Right now the federal government spends two thirds of its money on just five fast-growing items (Social Security, defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest payments). But tax rates are also at historic lows. The public needs to face that conflict. If those are the priorities we want, great. Let’s own them, let’s pay for them. If not, we’d better change them now, while we still can. The fiscal cliff is a great moment for doing that – if we seize it.


Scott Bittle is a senior fellow at Public Agenda and the coauthor of Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis. He is also the author of “The Federal Budget: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide,” and “Jobs and the Economy: A Citizens’ Solutions Guide,” from Public Agenda’s series helping citizens wrestle with the choices on some of our nation’s most complex problems.

  • submit to reddit

BillMoyers.com encourages conversation and debate around issues, events and ideas related to content on Moyers & Company and the BillMoyers.com website.

  • The editorial staff reserves the right to take down comments it deems inappropriate.
  • Profanity, personal attacks, hate speech, off-topic posts, advertisements and spam will not be tolerated.
  • Do not intentionally make false or misleading statements, impersonate someone else, break the law, or condone or encourage unlawful activity.

If your comments consistently or intentionally make this community a less civil and enjoyable place to be, you and your comments will be excluded from it.

We need your help with this. If you feel a post is not in line with the comment policy, please flag it so that we can take a look. Comments and questions about our policy are welcome. Please send an email to info@moyersmedia.com

Find out more about BillMoyers.com's privacy policy and terms of service.

  • JMChartier

    Unlike Social Security, which Americans have paid into since its founding, defense, or, as it seems to many ordinary Americans — Offense, is the biggest welfare program of this country — welfare to the military industrial complex. Defense — the several departments including homeland security – captures more of the citizen’s dollar than anything except, possibly the continuing near zero interest money for financial services industry.
    The military/security entitlements need to be right-sized, as they say when downsizing employees in other sectors.

    Congress, Treasury and the Fed need to ‘fess up about that Wall Street, Too Big to Fail giveaway and the terrible precedent it sets.

  • Anonymous

    The government doesn’t spend IT’S money on Social Security. The government spends the Social Security trust fund’s money on Social Security. When I’ve invested money into an IRA account at a bank, and then I start withdrawing it, we don’t say that the BANK is spending IT’S money on my retirement. Although I’m sure the banks would LOVE to try and shift people’s thinking into believing that.