Guest Opinion
Deal with facts when talking of debt reduction
By Mike Owen, Assistant Director

As published in the Sept. 17, 2011, Press-Citizen, Iowa City

It has been said that silver bullets often miss their target -- something to keep in mind in the coming months as debt reduction efforts move forward.

To clearly see the target, one must avoid the distractions and forget about silver-bullet, easy-answer "solutions." Turn to the fundamentals. Start with a firm foundation of facts, then move forward. What are the pertinent facts about national deficits and debt?

As a nation, we reduced our federal revenue -- the Bush-era tax cuts, which benefited primarily the wealthiest among us.

As a nation, we chose to spend more on national security -- two wars -- at the same time we reduced federal income.

As a nation, we lapsed into a recession from which we have not recovered, which also reduced, and continues to reduce, our income.

Those facts -- far and away -- account for the vast majority of the deficits we are creating each year to add to a national debt that under current policies would reach $20 trillion by 2019. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has estimated that almost half of that debt could be attributed to the Bush tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Are you already turning away from that mere statement of facts? If you don't deal with them, your children will have to.

On Monday, the Johnson County Task Force on Aging will hold a Debt Reduction Summit to encourage participants to look at alternatives they might, and might not, support. The exercise is much like the task of the special deficit-reduction "supercommittee" in Congress that faces a December deadline to find $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction.

The list of ideas is long, and the debate must involve more than the 12 members of that "supercommittee" -- six Democrats and six Republicans on the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. What can we do?

We should start with a balanced approach. Will Americans accept massive new cuts to programs that provide economic security for millions of people, just to protect tax breaks for millionaires and powerful corporations? That is a choice moving forward.

Because our economy has not recovered, we must be sure -- as the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission recommended -- not to fight deficits with measures that would increase poverty. That means cuts must be carefully targeted, and critical low-income programs such as SNAP (Food Stamps) and Medicaid must be protected.

Addressing the root causes of our decade of debt-building may not resolve the entire issue. But it's hard to imagine a fix without addressing tax cuts, military spending and carefully balancing budget choices with a way to spur the economy.

A budget ultimately is a moral document, a statement of what we value as a nation and our commitment to deliver it. The Johnson County Task Force event may remind us of that.

We need to expect difficult choices and, in some cases, discomfort. If we pressure politicians to keep us comfortable, they will likely fail -- both in keeping us comfortable and in correcting the course of this country.

In the end, this is a test of the governed as much as our elected leaders. It is about us all.

Mike Owen is assistant director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City,