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Let’s Pay for Our Priorities

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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.

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