It’s time to stop deceiving ourselves about the budget

Posted Feb. 21, 2011, at 8:10 p.m.

Once in a while a patient with high blood pressure who smokes like a fiend comes into my office and says earnestly, “Doc, I’m worried about my cholesterol.” He’s a stroke waiting to happen focused anywhere but where he needs to be, and all I want to ask him is, “What kind of la-la-land happy weed are you smoking?”

It’s the same response I have these days when I listen to most politicians in Washington, D.C. Lines of our elected leaders there cannot wait to form up behind anything that looks like a microphone to talk about how tough they will be on federal spending. “Read my lips — we are going to cut spending,” said John Boehner, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. President Obama said his proposed budget will reduce spending by $1.8 trillion over the next 10 years.

Sadly, if all this budget babble was an ugly lump growing on your head that I biopsied in the office, pathology results would show it to be 5 percent real and 95 percent fertilizer. That’s because any legitimate discussion about the federal budget deficit must include reductions in spending on Medicare, Social Security and defense. Those areas, and interest on the national debt, make up about 85 percent of the federal budget, and most of future budget deficits.

These days in D.C., however, almost all of the posturing and politicking is about the remaining 15 percent of the budget, where the real money is not. The elephant in the halls of Washington is not a Republican; it’s the ugly truth that real deficit reduction will include politically terrifying cuts in Medicare, Social Security and defense spending. No one wants to look that elephant in the eye, let alone talk to voters about it.

When I don’t hear straight talk about cutting those things coming from political lips talking about the federal deficit, I remember that old joke about how you know politicians are lying (their lips are moving). It’s an unfair and unfortunate joke; I have a lot of respect for our elected representatives, and most are honest, capable people. However, when our elected leaders posture in front of us over cuts in 15 percent of the budget while knowing they (and we) are avoiding the real issue of the other 85 percent, that’s a kind of deceit, at best.

Unfortunately, that old joke could also be told about most of us. When we — Joe and Josephine Voter — talk about cutting the federal deficit, how many of us acknowledge the probable need to wait until 69 for Social Security, pay higher premiums for Medicare and cut spending for defense? How many of us want to face the elephant?

The answer is: not many. A recent Pew Research Center (pewresearch.org) survey of Americans’ attitudes about reducing the federal budget found a significant majority of us want to increase spending on Medicare and education. About half of us want increased spending for defense and the unemployed. The majority of us also want no increase in our taxes. When you add up all of what we want it’s also clear what we don’t want — reality.

As a result, we and our leaders have suckered ourselves into a vicious cycle of denial about what it really takes to cut deficits, a cycle that is swirling us ever faster around the national drain. We punish politicians for telling us the ugly truth, so they fail to tell us the ugly truth. Then we don’t hear the ugly truth from enough of our political leaders to start accepting it and support efforts to address it.

That cycle must be broken and there are some in politics and elsewhere who are trying. Last November President Obama’s bipartisan Fiscal Commission released its co-chairs’ recommendations (fiscalcommission.gov) for eliminating the federal budget deficit over the next 10 years. It tackled defense spending, Medicare, Social Security, subsidies we all get from the government in the forms of mortgage and health insurance premium tax breaks and much more. The recommendations were so tough that a majority of the commission’s political members ran for cover while talking about less painful options.

It’s time for them — and all of us — to do something better with our lips.

Erik Steele, D.O., a physician in Bangor, is chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.

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