How do you lose weight? Easy: eat less, eat healthier, exercise more. Everybody knows those are the three steps, and everybody knows there’s no getting around it, but no one actually wants to do those three steps because it’s really unpleasant to do so. That’s why diet books fly off the shelves with promises of eating whatever you want, as much as you want, and never exercising, because their special secret sauce will make you lose weight anyway. We know it isn’t true, but the tiniest part of our brains thinks that maybe, just maybe, somebody finally found the golden ticket (spoiler: they didn’t).
The current US deficit is a spot on analogy for dieting. How do we fix the deficit? Easy: cut spending, raise taxes, and stop going to war. Everybody knows those are the three steps, and everybody knows there’s no getting around it, but no one actually wants to do those three steps because it’s really unpleasant to do so. That’s why politicians always run on the platform that we can cut spending without cutting any government services, that we can raise taxes on somebody else who is not you, and that we won’t go to war, we’ll just have “military actions.” Let’s take these one at a time.
If you don’t believe in raising taxes, check out this infographic:
The number one contributor to the US debt over the past 10 years is the Bush tax cuts. No, I’m not kidding. Not even raising taxes on the rich, but simply leaving them as they were before cutting them, would have saved us nearly $2 trillion. Damn.
And in second place we have the Iraq and Afghanistan wars which cost roughly $1.5 trillion. All we have to do is not kill people and we will save bank. Funny how that works.
Here’s another infographic of the budget itself and where we spend our money:
Bottom line? If we want to cut spending we have to reform Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We can cut libraries and education and police forces and PBS and NASA and whatever else we want, but that’s not going to work since that’s not where the money is going in the first place. (I could also point out that other countries with universal healthcare spend far less per person than we do.)
So what’s the problem, exactly? Why is it so hard to do these three things: cut spending, raise taxes, and stop going to war? Let’s discuss taxes first.
People react negatively to unfairness. I’ll bet that a lot of people would be happy to pay more taxes if it was fair. The problem is that it’s completely unfair. As Warren Buffett has said many times, he pays 17.4% of his income in taxes. He’s a billionaire, and the rest of his office, the non-billionaires, the non-rich, the regular people, paid an average of 36% of their income in taxes. So the middle class is paying twice as much percentage-wise as the rich; talk about unfair! As a member of the middle class, I would be happy to pay more taxes, but I’m sure as hell not going to pay more taxes so long as the rich are getting off easy. [NYT]
Moving on to cutting spending. Lots of people depend on Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid for their very survival. With the incredibly low wages that the middle class/poor are earning these days, and the demise of pensions and retirement funds, and the rise of inflation and unemployment and the recession, we can’t cut these things easily without people literally starting to starve. However, these are symptoms of the bigger problem: the rising inequality between rich and poor.
Here’s a third infographic of average income:
The top 0.01% makes 1000 times more than the bottom 90%. It used to be, in the good ol’ days, that a single working man could support his wife, his children, his entire family, and still have money left over to buy a house. Nowadays, the average working man is lucky to get by paycheck to paycheck, let alone support a family. Poor US citizens are relying increasingly more upon the government to keep them alive. Can you imagine any of them managing to save up for retirement? No. This is why it’s hard to cut things like Social Security. This is also why it’s important to fix the income distribution.
Finally, we come to war. I’ll admit, this is one thing I don’t fully understand; the need for people to shed the blood of other people. Ask for $1 trillion to go to war, no problem, but ask for even a single dollar to help someone and you’ll never get it. It flabbergasts me how much we are willing to spend killing people and how little we are willing to spend helping people. It seems we have our priorities backwards.
Although I don’t have a good explanation why, it’s pretty clear that the US loves being an empire, policing the world, sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong, and starting war after war after war after war (hundreds of wars). This really needs to end if we are ever going to fix the deficit.
Oh, and didn’t I start this off by talking about dieting? Eating less, eating healthier, and exercising more actually works — I have proof! Over the past few weeks I’ve lost 7 pounds on that regimen with the help of a cool little site I found called My Fitness Pal. It has great iOS and Android mobile apps that make counting your calories very easy. Take a look at these charts:
Each day I ate less than 1500 calories, walked 3 miles around my local park, and ate healthy foods like salads, wraps, and filet mignon, and voilà, I’m now a thinner, healthier version of me.
So, kids, remember Occam’s Razor: the simple and obvious solution will probably work if you just go out and find the willpower to do it.