Parties shame leaders into compliance

Our political leaders often pay lip service to fiscal discipline and balanced budgets. But, when handed the reins of power, such noble and lofty goals tend to take a back seat to the harsh political realities of governing in an era where issues of spending — once the fodder for honest intellectual debate — have become symbols of ideological purity.

Both parties have a few sacred issues and use a variety of tactics, along a declining spectrum of ethics, to ensure their members fall in line whenever certain issues come to a vote.

For Republicans, two of those issues are national security and tax cuts. If any Republican were to urge Congress to consider the fiscal implications of a ballooning defense budget, he would be met with scornful whispers of being “weak on terror” — a reaction that seems delightfully pleasant compared to what would be said of any caucus member who proposed raising taxes or closing corporate loopholes.

Democrats are not much better. When President Barack Obama argued that his party should put on the table reforms to Social Security and Medicare — programs sacred to Democrats — his liberal base criticized him for throwing seniors under the bus.

This leaves us in somewhat of a stalemate. Without real reform of defense and entitlement spending, the primary drivers of federal deficits, there is little hope of balancing the federal budget, even with the revamped tax code I wrote about last week.

Let’s take a closer look at defense spending. Each year, the United States spends almost $700 billion on defense — almost as much as the rest of the world combined . From this enormous budget, there are plenty of opportunities to trim spending without jeopardizing national security.

For instance, the United States currently has more than 150,000 troops stationed throughout Europe and East Asia. Some of these bases are needed, but the sheer magnitude of deployed forces in countries like Germany, Japan, Cuba and Italy is more reminiscent of imperialism than a legitimate desire for tactical flexibility.

If we were to reduce troop levels by one-third in non-war zones, we would save $100 billion per decade, according to former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb.

To make a true dent in defense spending, however, we must turn to its single greatest component: the ongoing war in Afghanistan. After a decade of struggle that has cost America vast sums of treasure and blood, can we not agree that it is time to bring our troops home? Let’s be honest: We have no legitimate partner in the region. As such, our strategy should pivot from nation-building to aerial reconnaissance and targeted drone strikes, which have provided invaluable intelligence and crippled Al Qaeda’s leadership network — our original mission in Afghanistan.

Other areas for defense cuts should include no longer subsidizing health care for Iraqi citizens, ending the practice of granting no-bid defense contracts to politically connected organizations like Halliburton and Blackwater and discontinuing investments in weapons from a bygone era. (It is hard to see why the Marines needed $15 billion for a fleet of expeditionary fighting vehicles when there has not been an amphibious military landing in more than half a century.)

Then there is entitlement spending for Medicare and Social Security. With an aging population of baby boomers, the ratio of workers paying into both programs compared to retired beneficiaries has shrunk from 16.5 in 1950 to 2.9 in 2010. In other words, a smaller workforce now has to supplement the benefits of a larger group of beneficiaries for a longer period of time.

Such a path is not sustainable in the long term. There are a few levers that legislators can pull to restore the sustainability of both programs: Cutting benefits, raising taxes or shrinking the pool of beneficiaries.

This isn’t a time to break promises made to our older generation, so we should prioritize the last two options. A modest increase in payroll taxes would provide a bigger stream of funds to divide among seniors.

But this is only a band-aid solution. Even more permanent would be the introduction of a means-testing process for Medicare and Social Security. As the system currently stands, everyone older than 62 can collect a portion of their full benefits — everyone, including the Donald Trumps and Warren Buffetts of the world.

Millionaires and billionaires do not need to be supported in their older years. And their exclusion from Medicare and Social Security benefits should be considered in order to maintain the long-term viability of both programs.

My last suggestion for reforming Medicare and Social Security would be to increase the age at which benefits can first be received. As people live longer and have more productive years, the age of retirement should increase with average life expectancies (with exceptions made for manual labor jobs).

Some of these proposals may seem toxic or untenable as lawmakers shift their focus to next year’s elections. But, if there’s one thing voters dislike more than deficits in spending, it’s deficits in courage and leadership.

The leaders of tomorrow aren’t going to be the candidates who shrink back in fear of offending certain portions of the electorate. They will be the candidates who present the most compelling vision for how America can restore fiscal discipline, preserve vital social programs and — most importantly — win the future.

_Jason is a senior in Engineering and Business._