A Blueprint for Balance

COMMENTARY Budget and Spending

A Blueprint for Balance

Jun 9, 2016 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, PhD

Founder and Former President

Heritage Trustee since 1973 | Heritage President from 1977 to 2013

Which takes up a greater percentage of the federal budget — national defense or entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare?

Even if you picked the right answer (entitlements), you may be surprised by the gap between the two. National defense accounts for 16 percent of the federal budget. Entitlements? 52 percent.

Social Security alone dwarfs defense spending, taking up 24 percent. That's right: One out of every four dollars spent at the national level goes toward the mammoth New Deal program. Medicare, Medicaid and other health care spending gets 28 percent of every federal dollar.

This is just one of the facts you can learn at a glance in FederalBudgetInPictures.com. You'll find plenty of charts there to put the fiscal debate into sharper focus.

Not that you'll necessarily enjoy getting a more accurate perspective on our nation's spending. The "U.S. Budget vs. Family Budget" chart is particularly startling: "If a median-income American family spent money like the U.S. government, it would have spent all of its earnings, and then put $7,000 on the credit card in 2015, even though it was already $260,000 in debt."

How often, when we hear news about Congress and the budget, do terms like "deficit spending" just wash over us, the numbers too big to comprehend, the terms too vague to have any real meaning? And yet, that's our money that they're mishandling. That's our children's future they're mortgaging. Do we care?

A child born this year will have a $42,000 share of publicly held federal debt. That's up from less than $10,000 for a child born in 1970. And the 2016 child, at current rates of spending, will see that debt climb to $68,454 by the time he's 18, then hit $116,904 by the time he's 34 (in 2050). This is unsustainable.

Speaking of unsustainable, another chart shows that we're on pace for entitlement spending and interest on the debt to consume every dime of tax revenue by 2033. That's right. By then, everything the federal government takes in via taxes will go toward Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other health care programs, along with the net interest on the massive national debt.

Worse, this is all set to happen automatically. Another chart, "Autopilot Spending Devours Budget," shows why: "Congress only appropriates funds for the discretionary portion of the budget on an annual basis. Autopilot spending makes up more than two-thirds of the budget and is growing rapidly."

So even if you vote in a fiscal hawk from your congressional district, and he sincerely tries to get spending under control, there's only so much he can do. Absent a true overhaul, we're headed toward a fiscal cliff — and the brakes are gone.

No problem, some people say. We just need to tax the rich more. Get those fat cats to cough up some extra dough, and we'll be set.

Good luck with that. The federal income tax system is already highly progressive. In 2012 (the latest year with available data), the top 10 percent of income earners earned 48 percent of all income and paid 70 percent of all federal income taxes. How much more can we bleed the golden goose before it's dead?

OK, some may reply, then we just need to raise taxes on corporations. Sorry: Among developed nations, the United States has the highest corporate tax rate, at 39 percent. That's substantially higher than that of other global regional leaders, such as Canada (26.3 percent), Chile (22.5 percent) and Hong Kong (16.5 percent).

That doesn't mean we have to despair. It won't be easy, but the problem can be fixed. By creating a budget that restores fiscal responsibility, we can not only balance the budget, we can create surpluses to reduce the national debt. Heritage has already outlined such a plan, in detail, in its "Blueprint for Balance."

We don't tolerate fiscal irresponsibility at home. Why should we put up with it in Washington?

Originally published in The National Times