Saturday, September 13, 2008

Required Reading for Voters - Looming Fiscal Crisis

While I might occasionally recommend a book or article, it's rare that I'd label something as "required" (i.e., containing information that you really need before going to the polls). Reviewing the Peter G. Peterson Foundation website, however, I came across one such document, the Foundation's State of the Union's Finances (SUF).

The SUF is a 24 page pamphlet with color charts and to educate voters on the US government's looming fiscal crisis and what they can do to better inform themselves. The Foundation is led by David Walker (pictured), the former Comptroller General of the United States, so it's a pretty credible statement of our national finances.

Here's the heart of the pamphlet:
the federal government's financial condition is worse than advertised and we are on an imprudent, irresponsible and unfair path...
More specifically:
without reform, federal deficits and debt will rise so high relative to gross domestic product (GDP) that they will threaten our economic strength, our international status, our standard of living, and eventually, our national security...Since the middle of 2007, problems in the U.S. housing sector have illustrated what happens when lendors lost confidence in borrowers. If our ability to manage our nation's fiscal affairs is called in to question, we are likely to face even more severe economic challenges, including sharply higher interest rates, further downward pressure on the dollar, higher prices for oil, food and other necessities and greater unemployment.
(emphasis in original)
Among the reforms the Foundation advocates are: entitlement reform (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), tax reform, health care reform (to reduce US spending on it)

Some of the recommendations for citizens are pretty common sense: registering to vote, informing themselves about the candidates' positions, holding them accountable, etc. In short, if you spend a little time with this document, you'll be light years ahead in making yourself a more educated voter.

I do have a few thoughts / reservations about this document:

-Like other budget focused groups such as the Concord Coalition, the Peterson Foundation seems to be more concerned about the deficit than the overall amount of spending. They seem agnostic about whether we have a lot of spending or a little spend, so long as its paid for in current taxes. However, the reason we're concerned about large deficits is the high taxes we'd need to pay in the future to pay them off. For the same reason, we should be concerned about excessive taxation now, which reduces the private sector's ability to invest in the future. Therefore, I'd like to see more emphasis on curbing spending.

-Next, simply asking candidates their views on the budget deficit won't be very helpful given that they will of course (a) be very concerned, (b) won't want to specify how they'll address these sorts of problems. Most important for a voter - look at the candidates' website for their "issues" and see whether they identify reforming entitlements and addressing the national debt as a priority. Those that haven't bothered to list it are not paying attention, regardless of how they answer your questions about it.

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