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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Funding Opinion

We’re Craven...and Our Prez Is Just Like Us

By Rick Hess — March 21, 2011 3 min read
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You ever see the Us Magazine feature “Just Like Us?” It features pictures of stars taking out their garbage, walking their dogs, and generally looking like the rest of us. I’ve been thinking how aptly that captures our relationship with our not-so-bold President.

As a nation, we’re staring at trillion dollar deficits. Unless we address them, we’re headed for some ugly times--with the bulk of the lifting to be borne by those kids we’re always so eager to claim our fealty to. States are in the same boat, looking at cumulative deficits in the hundreds of billions over the next couple years.

So, after a decade in which we bought houses we couldn’t afford, saved almost nothing, and clamored for both big tax cuts and increases in state and federal spending, what are we prepared to do about it? Pretty much nothing. The Washington Post reported last week that the only state budget cuts that even a bare majority of voters would support are a freeze in public employee salaries and a reduction in pension benefits. Meanwhile, substantial majorities oppose boosting sales or income taxes, or any actual spending cuts. O-kay..... Yeah, that’s not going to get ‘er done.

And we’ve got the President we deserve. President Obama is eager to pay lip service to hard choices. He says we’ve got to address the deficit. Heck, he even appointed a deficit commission. He then, of course, declined to support any of his own commission’s recommendations, mumbling vaguely, “The Commission’s majority report includes a number of specific proposals that I--along with my economic team--will study closely in the coming weeks as we develop our budget and our priorities for the coming year.” The President says he’s up for cutting: “Sometimes, particularly in tough times like these, you have to make hard choices about where to spend and where to save. That’s what being responsible means.” But then he’s made it clear that education is off the table: “I want everyone to pay attention. Even as we find ways to cut spending, we cannot cut back on job-creating investments like education. There’s nothing responsible about cutting back on our investment in these young people.” He’s opposed efforts to cut funding for National Public Radio. Indeed, he’s accurately noted that just cutting domestic discretionary spending doesn’t get you very far.

He’s right. The big dollars are in entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Except that OBM director Jacob Lew has said Social Security is fine and shouldn’t be touched as part of any deficit-cutting exercise. And the President’s health care reforms actually raised outlays on Medicare and Medicaid (though they raised enough in new taxes, and employed enough budget gimmicks, to not add to the short-term deficit).

The President has proposed modest cuts to military spending. Though, it’s worth noting that we could zero out national defense and that would only cut the budget in half. And, given that both left and right cheered our decision to go into Libya over the weekend--at a projected price tag of something like $5 billion--it’s naïve to expect big savings to materialize there.

Which brings us to taxes. The President could justify all the rest of his dodging and weaving if he called for big tax increases to finance all these programs and entitlements. Except, he says he’s for keeping tax rates down for all but the top two percent of earners (of course, taxing just those folks doesn’t do much to narrow the deficit). And, anyway, the President agreed last fall to lock in current rates for everyone, anyway.

So, we’ve got a citizenry that says we need to balance budgets, but that isn’t willing to pay any more taxes or to cut any services. And we’ve got a President who’s right for the times--one who says we need to make hard choices, but then manages to take every option off the table while demagoguing, in the most genteel fashion possible, those state and federal officials who put concrete ideas on the table. Hell, we’ve got 64 senators, half Republicans and half Democrats, asking the President to help lead serious efforts to tackle our fiscal crisis, and he still won’t step forward.

Hard to make the case that we’re doing much of anything “for the kids” when neither we nor our President have any remorse about sticking them with the consequences of our borrowed-time profligacy.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.