Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
One of the biggest problems in getting Americans engaged on the nation's fiscal challenges is that the problem is so hard for most people to get their arms around. The numbers are so huge, the issues so arcane and the problems so daunting that people may get angry about it, but have no idea how to grab onto it.
That's what makes the approach of the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States interesting. Their Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report, issued by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) today, is about how to control our national debt, already past $12 trillion and threatening to rise to staggering (and dangerous) proportions. Public Agenda is part of the Choosing Our Fiscal Future project with NAPA, working to build a network of citizens who'll get involved in the discussion and work on solutions.
The nonpartisan committee laid out a goal for a sustainable debt level (keeping it to 60 percent of gross domestic product), four alternative paths for reaching the goal, and six basic questions to ask about any federal budget. The committee argues that if the answers to these questions are "yes," we're at least making progress.
Here are the questions, taken directly from the report. Consider whether the federal budget meets them now – and more importantly, keep them in mind as new budgets are proposed.
- Does the proposed budget include policy actions that start to reduce the
deficit in the near future in order to reduce short-term borrowing and long-term interest costs?
- Does the proposed budget put the government on a path to reduce the federal debt within a decade to a sustainable percentage of GDP? Given the fiscal outlook and the committee’s analysis of the many factors that affect economic outcomes, the committee believes that the lowest ratio that is economically manageable within a decade, as well as practical and politically feasible, is 60 percent.
- Does the proposed budget align revenues and spending closely over the long term?
- Does the proposed budget restrain health care cost growth and introduce changes now in the major entitlement programs and in other spending and tax policies that will have cumulative beneficial fiscal effects over time?
- Does the budget include spending and revenue policies that are cost-effective and promote more efficient use of resources in both the public and private sectors?
- Does the federal budget reflect a realistic assessment of the fiscal problems facing state and local governments?
This gives the public something they haven't had before: a set of standards for a "good" budget, or at least as good as it can be given the tremendous fiscal challenges we face. If we give the public more tools to measure the problem, and grapple with real solutions, we can get ahead of this challenge – while there's still time.
Thursday, January 7th, 2010 | Scott Bittle
A lot of people have been watching the California fiscal crisis nervously, wondering what it could mean for other cash-strapped states and even the federal government. This week we got a glimmer of what it might mean: putting choices before the public.
In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put forth a plan to cut spending on state prisons and shift the money to higher education. Not only that, but he also proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure that the percentage the state spends on prisons never exceeds spending on higher education. Like nearly everything else in California, this would have to go before the voters in a referendum.
Whatever the merits of the idea – and its prospects for actually becoming law – Schwarzenegger's proposal does something that happens too rarely in politics: putting two different priorities on the table, effectively saying to the public: "Pick one. Colleges are important; so are prisons, but there's only so much money to go around, with California facing another $20 billion deficit this year. I choose colleges. Which do you prefer?"
The idea of choice, of helping the public decide between competing public priorities, is central to public engagement. Under the right conditions, people can and do weigh alternatives and make sound judgments between options. We've seen that in public engagement projects all around the country, on all kinds of topics.
Still, there are a lot of complicated tradeoffs here, and it's not clear whether Californians will get much help figuring them out. There are serious questions about how to cut prison spending and whether privatizing them (Schwarzenegger's preferred option) is a good idea, and about the efficiency of the higher education system. Critics are already raising doubts about whether California needs any more locked-in, voter-mandated programs in a state budget that's already full of them.
Now that Schwarzenegger has put the choice on the table, the next question for leaders, advocates and the media ought to be: what do Californians need to know in order to make it wisely? What are the key facts about colleges, prisons, and the state budget? What are the pros and cons of each path?
And make no doubt about it, there will be pros and cons on both sides. There always are. People can deal with that – if you give them a chance as well as a choice.