Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke warned Wednesday that Americans may have to accept higher taxes or changes in cherished entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security if the nation is to avoid staggering budget deficits that threaten to choke off economic growth.
"These choices are difficult, and it always seems easier to put them off -- until the day they cannot be put off anymore," Bernanke said in a speech. "But unless we as a nation demonstrate a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, in the longer run we will have neither financial stability nor healthy economic growth."
His stern lecture came as the economy is emerging from the worst recession in years, sending the stock market up considerably over the past year and raising public hopes for a return to prosperity. But the economic downturn -- with tumbling tax revenue, aggressive stimulus spending and rising safety-net payments such as unemployment insurance -- has driven already large budget deficits to their highest level relative to the economy since the end of World War II. This has fueled public concern over how long the United States can sustain its fiscal policies.
The health-care bill signed by President Obama last month has further stoked the national debate over government entitlement programs, though the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has projected that the legislation would actually reduce future deficits.
As Ezra writes, people seem to want the deficit reduced, but don't want to actually cut anything. It's not old news, but it makes for good TV and GOP talking points.
Kevin Drum adds:
Ah, the American public. God love 'em. The Economist asked if they'd rather tackle the federal deficit by cutting spending or raising taxes, and the runaway winner was cutting spending, by a margin of 62% to 5%. So what are we willing to cut? Answer: pretty much nothing.
As you can see, there wasn't one single area that even a third of the country wanted to cut back on. Except — hold on there! Down in the middle of the table. There is one area that everyone's willing to trim: foreign aid. Good 'ol foreign aid. A category that, as Roger McShane dryly points out, "makes up less than 1% of America's total spending."
[Treasury Secretary Paul] O'Neill, fired in a shakeup of Bush's economic team in December 2002, raised objections to a new round of tax cuts and said the president balked at his more aggressive plan to combat corporate crime after a string of accounting scandals because of opposition from "the corporate crowd," a key constituency.
O'Neill said he tried to warn Vice President Dick Cheney that growing budget deficits-expected to top $500 billion this fiscal year alone-posed a threat to the economy. Cheney cut him off. "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter," he said, according to excerpts. Cheney continued: "We won the midterms (congressional elections). This is our due." A month later, Cheney told the Treasury secretary he was fired.
The Great Torturer's words on deficit spending doesn't seem to resonate with the media, but when he talks about his love of torture, the Beltway's ears perk up.
If the Tea Party activists and Jim DeMint freaks really want to cut the deficit, then how about cutting defense spending? It's insane the amount of money that is getting shoved down the military pipeline. In 2011, we'll be spending $739 billion.
The money we spend on the two wars would practically pay for health care alone.