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It’s time for outrage

Conor Durkin | Tuesday, April 2, 2013

When it comes to our public sphere, I’ve always tried to be an optimist. But looking at what’s going on today, I think the time for optimism is just about over. It’s time for outrage.
It’s been almost five months since the election and almost 27 months since the Bowles-Simpson commission released its debt reduction plan, yet our government still hasn’t gotten its act together on the national debt. We tried to use a “supercommittee” to outline a plan – and it failed. We tried to impose a “fiscal cliff” – and we came right up to the edge of it, before kicking it down the road a little further. We tried the threat of a sequester – and instead of avoiding what most everyone thought of as arbitrary and ill-advised cuts, we actually had the sequester take effect. Two weeks ago, the Senate and House signed off on yet another continuing resolution for the federal budget, as we have failed – yet again – to agree to any budget outlining future federal spending.
And take a look at the solutions politicians have put forward to solve the problem, like Congressman Paul Ryan’s most recent budget. Ryan has previously stated he doesn’t want to change Medicare for anyone over 55, and his most recent budget plan also had a stated goal of balancing within a decade – an admirable achievement.  In order to meet both goals, however, he had to cut discretionary funding to unprecedented levels, leaving non-defense discretionary spending in 2023 at its lowest level in the past five decades. These sort of cuts would hinder our government’s ability to invest in research, technology, education or infrastructure – the sort of spending that leaves us better off in the long-run.  Doesn’t it seem counterproductive to solve our long-term public debt problem by creating a long-term public investment problem?
Congressman Ryan’s efforts at outlining a path forward are admirable, but the specifics of his approach need work.  According to a study from the Urban Institute last month, the federal government currently spends $7 on the elderly for every $1 it spends on young people. That spending on the elderly, by and large, comes through entitlement spending, and the notion that we should leave those $7 untouched for 10 years while targeting all of our cuts in that $1 is troubling. That’s protecting today’s generation at the expense of tomorrow’s, and we shouldn’t stand for it.
So, where does this leave us? Trapped, in a troubling equilibrium where we preserve entitlement spending and must choose between ignoring the threat of the national debt or making deep cuts to spending in programs geared towards investing in our future. Why is this happening? Well, one reason is older generations have no problem getting representation in Washington. The AARP is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in America, and the elderly vote in very reliable numbers. We don’t have that luxury, which is why it’s even more important for us to begin to speak up.
Simply put, young people are the ones who stand to be hurt the most by Washington’s dysfunction, and it’s time for us to do something about it and have a stake in solving the national debt crisis. Getting involved in efforts like The Can Kicks Back campaign, a non-partisan, millennial-driven grassroots organization pushing for a comprehensive debt solution, is a way to do just that. The Can Kicks Back is working to raise awareness among students and young adults about the enormous threat our debt poses – and we should listen.
The national debt, which stands at more than $16 trillion, represents the amount our government has borrowed and has to pay back. Who will end up paying those bills? You guessed it: you and me and everyone else in tomorrow’s work force. Higher deficits force future generations to pay for today’s consumption. Moreover, the uncertainty generated by our debt – and, more broadly, by our government’s colossal level of dysfunction – is weighing on our economy and hindering our economic growth, which leaves us worse-off in the job market. The need to pay our debt means our taxes will likely go up in the future, which will further hurt our economic prospects. And a failure to reform our entitlements – which are expected to drive much of the growth in our national debt – will force us to spend a lot less on other parts of the budget, leading to a crowding out effect that will really hurt us.
It’s easy to do nothing – to look at Congress and just shake your head – but that won’t change the fact that today’s problems will leave us worse off tomorrow. It’s time for our government to represent the needs of the next generation. Call your representatives, and tell them it’s time for the dysfunction to stop. Get involved with campaigns like The Can Kicks Back, and take action to send a message to Washington.
The time for indifference has passed. It’s time for outrage, and it’s time for action.

Conor Durkin is a junior studying economics and political science. He can be reached at cdurkin@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.