Wake up, America

Tuesday, May 18, 2010
By Paul Martin

By Robert J. Samuelson
WashingtonPost.com

You might think that Europe’s economic turmoil would inject a note of urgency into America’s budget debate. After all, high government deficits and debt are the roots of Europe’s problems, and these same problems afflict the United States. But no. Most Americans, starting with the nation’s political leaders, dismiss what’s happening in Europe as a continental drama with little relevance to them.

What Americans resolutely avoid is a realistic debate about the desirable role of government. How big should it be? Should it favor the old or the young? Will social spending crowd out defense spending? Will larger government dampen economic growth through higher deficits or taxes? No one engages this debate, because if rigorously conducted, it would disappoint both liberals and conservatives.

Confronted with huge spending increases — reflecting an aging population and soaring health costs — liberals would have to concede that benefits and spending ought to be reduced. Seeing that total government spending would rise even after these cuts (more people would receive benefits, even if benefit levels fell), conservatives would have to concede the need for higher taxes. On both left and right, true believers would howl.

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