The Deficit and National Debt Require a 'Shovel Ready' Solution

We've got to understand just how big a hole we must dig ourselves out of, and how long that takes.

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Change was apparently not "shovel ready."

Those two words came to define the economic stimulus package. Everywhere he spoke, President Obama mentioned the "shovel-ready" projects that would get people to work and get this economy back on track right away. But as he admitted in a recent New York Times interview, "there is no such thing as shovel-ready projects." It was a small metaphor of an emerging campaign theme—change takes time.

Some Americans are buying the message. As University of Colorado senior Elizabeth Wright told the Associated Press, "people expect things to happen quickly. I don't think people understand it takes time." She is not alone in her frustration. President Obama's loyal supporters are left wondering why so many people are willing to abandon his promises of change after just two years.  

I, for one, am not one of these loyal supporters asking for patience. Many of the changes he has brought, or even promised, overstep the boundaries of my belief in limited government. However, my main issue is the lack of attention President Obama has given to fundamentally reforming the drivers of federal spending.

This oversight has led to some startling results. President Obama's 2011 budget showed a cumulative 10-year deficit of $8.5 trillion and a national debt growing to $25.8 trillion by 2020. As a young adult with a lifetime of taxes ahead of me, the CBO's recent warning that without reform our "debt [will] rise to unsupportable levels" and "increase the probability of a sudden fiscal crisis" is especially troublesome.

In other words, I don't believe that patience would work. It's not that his plans to address our debt need time to succeed, it's that he hasn't started crafting a plan at all.

Nevertheless, I see that impatience is boiling over amongst the electorate. As one former supporter lamented to President Obama in a CNBC townhall, "I'm exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for." My concern is that our impatience for change will eventually harm the long-term effort needed for fundamental reforms. The same hurried anxiety that may save us from digging a deeper fiscal hole may be the same emotion that slows down the change we need.

Our national debt is an enormous problem that will require a long-term and multifaceted solution. The entirety of our entitlement structure is in need of retooling. Medicaid spending, even before its massive expansion in the healthcare reform bill, is growing at a 7.5 percent annual rate. Spending on the program is projected to grow from 3 percent of GDP today to 15 percent by 2080. Medicare faces similar cost overruns, growing at nearly twice the rate of GDP. Finally, Social Security is expected to begin running permanent deficits in 2016, completely depleting its trust fund by 2037.

Big problems necessarily require big solutions. Take, for instance, Rep. Paul Ryan's Roadmap for America's Future. It is an audacious plan that overhauls the tax code, introduces an option for private retirement accounts to exist alongside Social Security, and introduces a Medicare voucher system. His plan would balance the budget by 2063, but are voters willing to wait that long?

My own cynicism makes me worry that we have allowed our debt to grow so large that our national politics will be stuck in a constant oscillation in which neither party can do enough in two years to earn reelection in the eyes of voters. Will we reward genuine steps toward reform? If not, will we find ourselves back in the same place in four, or even two years, cleaning the political house once again because change didn't come soon enough?

It is my hope that Americans will be able to identify and reward small progress. Solving our deficit is a "shovel ready" problem, but we've got to understand just how big a hole we must dig ourselves out of.

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