If we want to find out how serious the presidential candidates are about deficit reduction, future debates need to avoid the Big Bird Syndrome.
That's when politicians imply they will fix the country's massive fiscal problems by eliminating what amounts to chicken feed in federal spending.
Romney, calling for spending cuts to reduce the $1.1 trillion deficit, outlined a few specifics: eliminate Obamacare and the federal subsidy for the Public Broadcasting Service. Later, he also mentioned cutting federal subsidies forAmtrak and the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities.
He noted he would cut PBS' funding even though he's a huge fan of “Sesame Street” icon Big Bird.
Obama had his own bout of Big Birdism, declaring at one point that he had cut government programs that weren't working and went after Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Yet the deficit has fluttered well above $1 trillion during his tenure.
“Politicians tend to target what some people think of as waste,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of theConcord Coalition, a bipartisan research group that advocates a balanced federal budget. “The public basically has a view that the government is bloated and there's a lot of waste. The conversation always seems to go to these small programs.”
In Romney's case, the cost of health care reform hasn't really kicked in, so eliminating it won't make a dent in the current deficit. PBS gets $444 million in government subsidies, Amtrak gets $1.4 billion and the arts endowment gets $146 million. Taken as a whole, the programs come to slightly more than $2 billion, which is so insignificant against the $1.1 trillion deficit that it's not worth mentioning.
Perhaps we need to cut these programs because they're inefficient or we don't believe government should fund them or we simply don't like them. But as a deficit reducer, it's like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of Grand Canyon and saying you're fighting erosion.
“Nondefense discretionary programs are the smallest part of the budget and the least-threatening when you think of the fiscal future,” Bixby said. “Those aren't the programs that are growing faster than the economy.”
We have to start somewhere, of course, but if we're serious about reducing our trillion-dollar spending hole, how about we start with the cause of the problem?
Entitlement programs are the fastest-growing part of the deficit. Yet Wednesday night, the candidates argued over how they weren't going to cut Medicare. Obama alluded to “tweaks” in Social Security, but didn't go into detail.
The questions that need to be asked in one of the upcoming debates: How do you plan to reduce the deficit without cutting entitlements? Would you cut Medicare or Social Security first and in what way?
These questions need to be followed up with specifics such as whether Social Security can be fixed by raising the retirement age, increasing payroll taxes or changing inflation adjustments, for example.
Then we need a Big Bird buzzer that goes off if they start talking about chicken feed.
On the tax side, we need similar candor. Romney, for example, has proposed a revenue-neutral tax overhaul, but again, few specifics on how to get there.
Every year, for example, the U.S. gives up about as much revenue, $1.2 trillion, in deductions as it collects in income taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. Eliminating them would go a long way toward closing the deficit gap, but talking instead about tax credits to oil companies or deductions for corporate jets, as Obama did Wednesday night, is just more Big Birding.
Making meaningful headway on the revenue side of the deficit equation means targeting what Bixby referred to as “tax entitlements”: deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable donations and employer-provided health care.
Which of these three would the candidates slash first?
They aren't easy cuts, and they won't be politically popular, but solving our deficit problem isn't as simple as canceling Big Bird's allowance.
Loren Steffy is the Chronicle's business columnist.