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One Choice Leads To More

by Scott Bittle

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

Elections are one of the major ways we make choices as a nation, and this week's election results are certainly a big choice by the public, as Republicans take control of the House. But elections aren't the only way choices get made, and the choices between elections are just as important - and just as difficult.

That's particularly true when the choices are about money. The nation is facing both a difficult economy right now and a national debt that simply can't be sustained over the long term. That's a challenge that will stretch over the next two years, but a lot of choices will be put on the table in the next two months. The presidential deficit commission is scheduled to vote Dec. 1 on its final report. And Congress will have to decide whether to keep the Bush tax cuts, let them expire, or craft a compromise.

Dealing with these problems is going to require making choices and weighing tradeoffs: what we want as nation, and what we're willing to pay to get it. And these choices belong to the public.

One of the biggest problems in the debate over our national debt and the federal budget is that no one seems to agree on what a "good" budget is. Does that mean a balanced budget? Or one that's judged by the overall economy: small or no deficits in prosperous times; big deficits to stimulate the economy when times are bad? Is it based on the size of our national debt? Or maybe it's about whether the budget is sustainable in the long run?

Don't worry if the debate is confusing. One reason it's confusing is that economists and policymakers disagree on what should be done. The Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States tried to address that sticking point by coming up with Six Questions To Ask About Any Federal Budget. We think a yardstick like this will be extremely important in the next few months, as crucial decisions are made and plans are put on the table.

And for more on the choices we face, take a look at our slideshow for scoping out the basics, and the Visual Budget Tool for crunching the numbers yourself. You can also keep up with the debate with Fiscal Future's iPhone and Android apps, and join us on Facebook and Twitter.


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