Andrew Clark: Three cheers for austerity

Seeing the Republican Party seriously considering a ban on earmarks in Congress has given me hope that America may finally be ready to attack our fiscal crisis.

Don’t get me wrong, I realize that killing earmarks is no panacea to our deficit woes – they account for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. But the move is a symbolic indication that America may finally be ready to make the painful sacrifices that will be required in a course correction back to economic strength.

Our generation should be leading the way toward this new era of austerity.

The first two years of President Barack Obama’s presidency have seen the highest and second-highest deficits on record since 1945, with each year averaging about $1.2 trillion. What’s even more alarming is that the U.S. debt – the amount the government owes due to consistent deficit spending – is over $9 trillion. In 2009, our debt made up 52 percent of our gross domestic product, which is half of our entire economy. That debt escalates to nearly $14 trillion when we include the unfunded benefits of Social Security and Medicare.

It doesn’t take much to see where our current budgetary policy will lead us. With such a burdensome debt, fears of inflation and the printing of money will inevitably become rampant. How will the government pay down all that debt? Investors will flee the U.S. dollar, and consumers will feel the pain as interest rates rise and the economy slows down.

Meanwhile, the government will be paralyzed to use any form of fiscal policy to alleviate the pain, as it will have already dug itself so far into debt that it has no room to move. This is not a made-up scenario, as many European countries have already befallen such a plight. And while the U.S. is relatively safe with its debt level at the moment – as a comparison, Italy has a debt that is 103 percent of its GDP – we aren’t too far behind.

If we want to secure our economic futures, we need to be the leading advocates for getting our budget under control. And we need to do so fast, because the results of such fiscal proliferation will hurt us the most. The needed reforms will be widespread and painful, but we need to suck it up and push forward toward fiscal sobriety.

We can start with the federal budget, and make reductions across-the-board – not just to welfare programs, but to military spending as well. Many organizations have made detailed lists of hundreds of programs that could be eliminated or scaled back to save billions of dollars.

Then we move on to Social Security, which will soon no longer be able to pay seniors without finding more tax revenue elsewhere or cutting benefits. The crisis is entirely solvable, but politicians have become entirely too opposed to either reducing benefits or raising taxes, for fear of political backlash. We should express our support for tinkering with the program – both by reducing benefits and raising taxes – if we hope to see any of our benefits at all. Medicare faces a similar fate, and requires a solution.

Finally, we can reform the U.S. tax code, ending loopholes and simplifying the system, to boost revenues and eliminate fraud. Some taxes on all Americans may have to be raised slightly – but the long-term economic health that would result from budgetary stability would be worth the cost.

“Challenge the unchallenged” was a phrase common among student leaders of the 1960s. For decades, politicians have been spending away our futures, ignoring the long-term financial risk to enjoy the short-term political gain. Does this not anger you, GW? Austerity reform should and can be the calling of our generation. Only you can let it.

The writer, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

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