Federal Budget Debates: Let’s Get Real

Federal Budget Debates: Let’s Get Real

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Once in a while a patient with high blood pressure who smokes like a fiend comes into my office and says earnestly, “Doc, I’m worried about my cholesterol.” He’s a stroke waiting to happen, focused anywhere but where he needs to be, and all I want to ask him is, “What kind of la-la-land happy weed are you smoking?”

I have the same response these days when I listen to most politicians in Washington, lining up behind anything that looks like a microphone to talk about how tough they will be on federal spending. “Read my lips – we are going to cut spending,” said John Boehner, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House. President Obama said his proposed budget will reduce spending by $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years.

If all this political budget babble was an ugly lump growing on your head that I biopsied in the office, pathology results would show it to be 5 percent real and 95 percent fertilizer. That’s because any legitimate discussion about the federal budget deficit must include reductions in spending on Medicare, Social Security, and defense. Those areas, and interest on the national debt, comprise about 85 percent of the federal budget, and most of future budget deficits.

In Washington, however, almost all the posturing and politicking is about the remaining 15 percent. The elephant in the halls of Washington is not a Republican; it’s the ugly truth that real deficit reductiong will include politically terrifying cuts in Medicare, Social Security, and defense spending. No one wants to look that elephant in the eye, let alone talk to voters about it.

I remember the old joke about how you know politicians are lying (their lips are moving). That’s unfair and unfortunate; I have a lot of respect for our elected representatives, and most are honest, capable people. However, when our elected leaders posture over cuts in 15 percent of the budget while knowing they (and we) are avoiding the real issue of the other 85 percent, that’s kind of deceitful, at best.

Unfortunately, that old joke can also be told about most of us. When we - Joe and Josephine Voter - talk about cutting the federal deficit, how many of us acknowledge the probable need to wait until age 69 for Social Security, pay higher premiums for Medicare, and cut spending for defense? How many of us want to face the ugly truth?

Not many. A recent Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ attitudes about the budget found a significant majority want to increase spending on Medicare and education. About half of us want increased spending for defense and the unemployed. The majority also want no increase in taxes. When you add up all of what we want, it’s also clear what we don’t want: Reality.

We and our leaders have suckered ourselves into a vicious cycle of denial about what it really takes to cut deficits, a cycle that is swirling ever faster around the national drain. We punish politicians for telling the ugly truth, so they fail to tell us the ugly truth. We don’t hear the ugly truth from enough of our political leaders to start accepting it and support efforts to address it.

There are some in politics and elsewhere trying to break that cycle. Last November, President Obama’s bipartisan Fiscal Commission released its co-chairs’ recommendations for eliminating the budget deficit over the next decade. It tackled defense spending, Medicare, Social Security, subsidies we all get from the government in the form of mortgage and health insurance premium tax breaks, and much more. A majority of the commission’s political members ran for cover while talking about less painful options.

It’s time for them – and all of us – to do something better with our lips.

Reprinted from the Bangor Daily News, with permission of the author. Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.