Spend a little time in Washington, D.C., and you’d be hard pressed to see any evidence of the economic doldrums that have plagued the rest of the nation over the last several years. While the greater United States contends with slow growth and high unemployment, the nation’s capital is now the wealthiest metropolitan area in the nation.
That’s according to a recent analysis by 24/7 Wall Street. The typical household in the Washington metro area, which includes the District of Columbia along with suburbs of eastern Maryland and northern Virginia, brings home $86,680 each year—71 percent higher than the $50,502 per year national median. These days, even the technology barons of Silicon Valley take a backseat to our privileged government class.
This is not what a healthy society looks like. Compare the United States in the 21st century to the Roman Empire in its declining years, and the parallels are alarming. In Rome, those who lived in and around the capital city and moved among the emperor and the ruling class lived in high style. The further citizens and subjects lived from Rome, the harder it became.
That’s why the recent debate over sequestration, which delivers sharp cuts to federal spending, especially in the defense budget, seems like just what we needed. After all, if the Washington, D.C., metro area is getting rich off the rest of America while running up massive amounts of spending and debt, it’s time to rein them in, right?
Well, not exactly. There’s no question we need to put the brakes on the runaway spending train in the nation’s capital, and there’s no question the nation’s current $16.5 trillion debt load is unsustainable. But the planned cuts under sequestration, which began March 1, are the wrong way to go about bringing fiscal discipline to Washington.
The problem with the sequester, which reduces defense by some $500 billion over the next decade (along with other cuts in discretionary spending), is that it’s a “meat ax” approach to budget cutting. Rather than looking at our strategic threats and priorities and adjusting the budget accordingly, the sequester imposes steep cuts and demands that our military leaders adjust the budget based on the funding that’s left.
Sure, with combat operations completed in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan, we should expect to see some reduction in defense spending. Yet to cut too deeply into the “muscle” of our national security investment will leave the United States and our allies around the world vulnerable to threats like Iran, North Korea or even China.
Worse yet, the cuts under sequestration, while reducing our investment in strategic defense priorities, would do little to reduce the deficit and nothing to reduce the debt. The only way to actually bring down spending and get a handle on our runaway debt is by reforming our entitlement programs, principally Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Millions of Americans rely on these programs that are structurally unsound. Medicare will be out of money in 11 years on its current spending track, according to a report from the Medicare board of trustees; Social Security will be broke in 20 years, according to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.
Yet when it comes to reform, these unsustainable programs have been labeled “untouchable” by the president and his congressional allies—even though reducing spending in entitlements is the only path back to fiscal sanity. Why? Because without reform today, Social Security and Medicare will be unable to meet the needs of future beneficiaries. Reforming entitlements isn’t just good fiscal sense—it’s also the only way to ensure these programs survive for future generations.
Sadly, however, instead of having this common sense discussion, Washington has elected to slash defense spending, reducing our force readiness and leaving our military weaker while the world grows more dangerous.
Our imperial governing class probably doesn’t want to hear this message. They want to keep feeding at the trough of federal spending, piling up debt and imperiling our nation’s future while the nation’s capital milks the cash cow that is the American taxpayer. Yet whether the sequestration goes into effect or not, we’ll still have a dangerous spending problem—and we’ll still be at risk for a serious budget reckoning in the near future.
Originally published in The Washington Times