Balancing our budget requires honesty

To effectively grasp what the government actually does with its power, the most important thing to understand is the federal budget.

That is why graphic designer Jess Bachman’s new poster, “Death and Taxes: 2011,” is such a useful tool for educators, activists and curious citizens alike.

Julia Vann | Daily Trojan

With it, Bachman gives a dramatic, to-scale, graphical representation of President Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, focusing especially on the discretionary budget (the part that changes yearly and does not include Social Security, Medicare or other entitlements). Bachman’s poster breaks the budget down into all programs that receive more than $200 million and shows how budget priorities have changed during the past decade.

“Death and Taxes” is striking because it reveals the appalling nature of our national priorities and the vast overreach of the federal government.

Some gems from the 2011 budget:

The government plans to spend $3.834 trillion, although it expects to take in only $2.567 trillion — that’s a deficit of $1.267 trillion. That means the federal government alone will be taking on about $4,000 of debt per U.S. citizen in a single year.

Of that, $1.415 trillion is discretionary, while the rest consists of Social Security, unemployment insurance and other types of income security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on our existing debt and veterans’ benefits.

Perhaps most shocking is how the discretionary spending is apportioned: 63 percent of it, a whopping $895 billion, is classified as military or security spending. $713 billion of that goes to the Department of Defense, up 91 percent from 2001.

In 2011, we will spend $985 million on bullets, $3.934 billion on F-35 Lightning II fighter jets, $6.804 billion on federal prisons and $2.136 billion on international narcotics control.

In contrast, we will spend $1.818 billion on higher education and $8.513 billion on a whole range of programs under the heading “global health and child survival.”

There are innumerable lessons to be taken from the budget.

When bullets, prisons and the overseas drug war combine to represent a higher priority than global health and child survival, something is awry.

Not only is there a moral problem here, there is a practical one too. The long-term success of everything the United States claims to cherish — liberty, democracy, human rights, prosperity — depends largely on our ability to shift resources away from short-term solutions to today’s problems and toward investments in a better future.

We can, and must, fund departments like Homeland Security to counter immediate threats, but a strategic nation would devote equal attention to eliminating those threats in the long run by promoting our values in a positive manner.

The second lesson to be learned from Bachman’s poster is that we spend a ludicrous amount on defense. The United States already has the largest, most powerful and most advanced military in the world. So it is shocking to see that in 2009, we almost outspent the rest of it.

As it is, we represented 43 percent of international defense spending; second-place China spent only 6.6 percent.

When we spend so much time wondering why China has so much money to invest or lend to us, while we are chronically short on cash, maybe we should consider that China saves an extra $600 billion per year by shunning the ambition to be able to beat the rest of the world in some sort of apocalyptic fantasy war.

The final lesson in Bachman’s poster is how disingenuous today’s “deficit hawk” politicians really are. Republicans are haggling over whether they will cut spending by about $60 billion or $100 billion, a difference whose minimal value is put in clear perspective by Bachman’s graphics.

Seeing the numbers on a single page makes it obvious that closing the deficit will require a combination of major spending cuts with major tax increases.

With Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs set to rise exponentially over the coming years, the challenge will be even greater.

Until politicians are honest with the American people and admit the inevitability of both higher taxes and massive spending cuts, there is no way it will be possible to fix the deficit that threatens our economic future.

There is, however, reason for optimism. Our miserable job of prioritization has created opportunities for a more balanced budget.

Perhaps with more efforts like Bachman’s, Americans will become aware enough to hold politicians accountable for insincere promises and demand real, tangible change.

Daniel Charnoff is a senior majoring in international relations (global business). His column, “Through the Static,” runs Fridays.