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The Only Way to Achieve True Fiscal Discipline: Learn Arithmetic

Arithmetic and history. Two of my favorite subjects in school. I covered some history two posts ago (the Whisky Rebellion). Let’s do some arithmetic now.

Attention is currently focused on threats of a government shut-down, either when a continuing resolution is required from Congress in March in order to keep the government operating, or a few months later, when an increase in the national debt ceiling is required. The common description of this showdown as a high-stakes game of chicken has it right. But some of the Tea Partiers say that their goal is literally to avoid an increase in the debt ceiling - not just as a bargaining ploy nor as an abstract goal, but in the sense that they want to cut spending so sharply that there is no need to borrow any more after this spring. Similarly, Senators Mike Lee (Utah) and Jon Kyl (Ariz.) have revived the proposal for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. And of course they all want to do it without raising taxes, and in most cases without cutting defense, Social Security or Medicare. Oh, and don’t cut farm subsidies either.

Not many people want to spend the time learning about the specific options or making the choices that would be necessary in order genuinely to solve the budget situation, even though a couple of useful websites make it relatively easy to think through the alternatives (NYT or PPC).

But the proposition that we could eliminate the budget deficit through sufficiently drastic cuts in domestic spending is so far out of line with reality, that the point can be made easily to even the most innumerate congressman. Here is the arithmetic.