A Time to Choose: Debt Ceilings, Medicare, and Competing Visions of America's Future

The great debate currently consuming Washington concerns the question of raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans remain in intense talks with the White House over how to address the problem, bringing to the forefront pressing political impasses and the differing solutions that each side offers. Whether we live out our calling to love our neighbor depends on whether we seriously contemplate and act upon these solutions.

What is the debt ceiling? It is the limit set by law to how much the national government can borrow. Currently, the debt limit is $14.3 trillion. Though the exact time is unclear, common opinion puts August 2 as the point at which the $14.3 trillion mark will be breached.

What happens if the debt limit is not increased? The U.S. government will be unable to borrow any money to pay its obligations and would be forced to balance its budget immediately. Since forty cents of every dollar spent by the U.S. government is not paid for, massive cuts would be necessary right now. Furthermore, the government could default on its current debt, causing massive instability in the global market. The results could be horrific.

The debt ceiling has been increased regularly in the past, but several factors contributed to make this time stand out. First, the escalation of the debt ($4.36 trillion under 8 years of President Bush; $4.0+ trillion in 2+ years of President Obama) has catapulted fiscal restraint into a salient political concern. Second, defaults and near-defaults in European nations like Ireland and Greece have stoked fears of what runaway spending could eventually do here.

The consensus says the debt ceiling should only be raised if real steps are taken toward decreasing the annual deficit. How to accomplish that goal remains the focal point of the debate. Most news reports focus on the following divide:  Democrats want some spending cuts coupled and to raise taxes. Republicans want deeper spending reductions without raising taxes.

The reality is more complicated. Raising taxes, as some state governments have learned, can negate revenue increases through discouraging economic growth. Cutting spending is not so simple, either. The heart of the problem rests in mandatory spending, expenditures which are not set by law but increase on the basis of promised benefits. Social Security and Medicare, for example, must keep their financial commitments to individual beneficiaries regardless of what Congress desires to spend. These programs present a double problem. The first is budgetary. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security accounted for 43% of the 2010 federal budget.  When all mandatory spending is taken into account, the national government only has discretionary power over 37% of the budget. Remove defense spending and 37% becomes 17%. Since we already overspend our revenue by 40%, we could eliminate everything except mandatory expenditures and defense and not even cut half the annual deficit. Cut all discretionary spending, including eliminating our military, and we are still in the red.

The second problem regards sustainability. The Medicare and Social Security Trustees released their annual report on the solvency of these two programs earlier this year. According to the report, Medicare will run out of money by 2024, a full five years earlier than last year’s prognosis. Social Security’s trust fund runs out in 2036. The problem is not tight-fisted politicians. Social Security’s funding system is demographic suicide. So is Medicare, especially with the massive increases in health care costs that show no sign of abatement.

Quite simply, Medicare and Social Security are on the road to bankruptcy. They will not survive as presently constituted. Nor can the budget be brought anywhere near balance without reforming these programs in fundamental ways. Anyone arguing otherwise is either ignorant of the facts or false for political gain.

As Christians, our call to love others includes fellow citizens and residents of this nation. The abstract truth is clear: we cannot continue to spend 40% more than we make. We must reform our entitlement programs if we truly want them to help those in need beyond the immediate future.

The concrete truth is not as clear. Thus far, Democrats have not put forth a plan. When asked concerning Medicare, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi replied, “We have a plan. It is called Medicare.” The GOP’s main proposal is far from perfect. But at least they have a plan from which to negotiate.

Democrats and Republicans hold significantly different understandings of the nation’s best interest. Republicans will focus on more private and market-based solutions. Democrats will lean toward greater government control and collective action.

Both will articulate conceptions of what it means for human beings to live in community. Both understand that life consists of individual and communal elements. We are each created in the image of God, with eternal futures particularly our own, yet our identity is fundamentally tied to community. It is how these communal and individual elements are realized that make the difference.

Most Republicans desire community, but in many cases Republicans do not see government as the proper vehicle for that purpose. They believe that government beyond certain limits only stifles true community. Cold bureaucracy and distant administrators are seen as dangers to relational living, self-government, and human dignity. It is by increasing free association, they argue, that the worth of the individual and the joy of community are better balanced.

Democrats see dangers from government, but not in the same way. Government can stifle the individual by imposing community standards of rights over individual expression. At the same time, they support greater state control of economics. Doing so increases equality. Government should combat unjust natural and societal structures while itself being a kind of community. Democrats thus tend to be individualists on social issues and communitarians in economics.

Christians can see in both parties a desire for the common good. Each makes good-faith attempts to balance the individual and the community. That should encourage civility. But civility cannot be paralysis. Hard choices must be made. A vision for the future must be chosen. Loving our neighbor demands it.

About Adam Carrington

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