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01.28 Calling the Question on the National Debt

Thursday, January 28th, 2010 | Ruth Wooden



In the State of the Union speech last night, President Obama said the one of the most thoughtful ways of attacking our budget crisis is to name a bipartisan commission to guide our fiscal future onto a sustainable path, in contrast to the unsustainable path we are on now.

A commission of experts can certainly come up with reasonable suggestions for how to create a sustainable federal budget. But the debate over the national debt and the federal budget isn't just about money, it's about values, and as President Obama said last night, it's also about trust. The federal budget is an expression of our priorities as a country. How we trust our government to spend the taxpayers' money (and who gets taxed) says something about what Americans value, and what we don't.

Budget debates reflect fundamental differences in public values, priorities, and the tradeoffs they're willing to make to accomplish their goals. People hold sharply different values about what they want or need from government, what government can actually deliver, and what role it should play in daily life. These differences in beliefs and interests need to be recognized and reconciled before the government can make long-term budget decisions.

If you judge the United States by its budget, however, you might be forgiven for thinking Americans are a little muddled on key points. As a nation, there's a fundamental mismatch between what our government spends and what takes in, a situation that's going to get worse in the foreseeable future. So far, our political system we've been wanting more from the government than we've been willing to pay for some time.

One of the most crucial points about the Choosing Our Nation's Fiscal Future report is that it calls the question and asks for dialogue on some of the fundamental questions that underlie our budget problems. How big should our government be? What kind of services do we want? How are we going to pay for it? What do we need to do to ensure fairness between older and younger generations?


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01.27 An Interactive State Of The Union

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 | Francie Grace



Your thoughts won't flash on the U.S. Capitol podium, but this year's State of the Union address (9 p.m. ET, on most TV networks, many radio outlets, and live on the web and the iPhone) will be different.

As soon as President Obama begins delivering his report on the condition of this country and his proposals for what should be done to face our most urgent problems, YouTube will begin accepting videos with follow-up questions for the president, whose comments are expected to include the formation of a commission on the federal budget deficit (for more on that, click here).

Folks who log onto the Citizen Tube page will also be able to vote on questions for the president, who will answer some of them next week in a live online event.

But you don't have to go on YouTube to have a real time interactive experience with the State of the Union. Log onto Twitter during the president's speech, the Republican response, or afterwards, and if you include the hashtag #FiscalFuture in your message, your comments on the federal budget deficit and national debt will be part of the ongoing conversation.

You can view the conversation live by clicking on #FiscalFuture in your own message or elsewhere, or you can go to search.Twitter.com and search for #Fiscal Future.

Our discussion is nonpartisan, so please try to stick to the subject of the problem and potential solutions, and play nice. We hope to see you there!

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01.25 Heading for a Commission?

Monday, January 25th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



A bipartisan commission of some kind to make recommendations on reducing the deficit and controlling the national debt is looking more and more likely. The Senate is supposed to vote on the idea Tuesday, but if that fails, reports say President Obama will announce he'll appoint a panel by executive order in the State of the Union speech. Meanwhile, while it isn't clear how the public will fit into the commission process, what is clear, in the latest the latest Pew Research Center survey, is that public concern over the deficit is both rising and relatively bipartisan.

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01.21 Budget Commissions, Tough Options, and the Public

Thursday, January 21st, 2010 | Scott Bittle



The idea of a bipartisan commission to draft a plan to get the federal budget on a sound footing has been embraced by President Obama and Congressional leaders, and will likely be a major point in next week's State of the Union speech. Under the plan, a panel named by the White House and leaders of both parties would come up with proposals by December to close the deficit and control the debt. As part of the deal, Congressional leaders promise they would act on the commission plan quickly.

You're going to hear lots of furious debate over whether this is a good idea or not (you can sample some of the criticism from the left and the right on this). There's one big question that has yet to be answered, however: how does the public factor into this?

We can't solve our long-term fiscal problems without engaging the public. Most of the options boil down to spending cuts or tax increases, and very likely a combination of both. None of them can be implemented without public support. Plus, how the federal government raises and spends money is an expression of what is important to us as a society. If we're going to be setting priorities – and that's a crucial part of this process – the public's voice needs to be heard.

There are ways of getting the public involved in working through the options here. For more on putting our fiscal house in order, have a look at the Our Fiscal Future web site, or visit Fiscal Future on Twitter and Facebook. The Six Questions to Ask About the Federal Budget is a good starting point. You can also find out more about the budget and choices for dealing with it at FacingUp.org.

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01.21 Public Agenda Energy Book Authors On PBS This Weekend

Thursday, January 21st, 2010 | Francie Grace



What do citizens really need to know about energy and climate change? What lessons for making energy policy can be found in the movies Groundhog Day, Mad Max: The Road Warrior, Soylent Green and Apollo 13? And most importantly, how can we figure out which fuels we should pursue, which we should use less, and how we should otherwise change our ways to create a more environmentally and economically sustainable present and future?

Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, authors of Who Turned Out the Lights? Your Guided Tour to the Energy Crisis, have answers to all these questions and more, in their book and in an interview on PBS' Bill Moyers Journal to be aired Friday, Jan. 22, and Sunday, Jan. 24 (and perhaps also at a different time in your area: check this link for the schedule in your neck of the woods).

So tune in, or record it – and if you've got questions about energy or climate change, feel free to post them or e-mail Jean and Scott – we'd love to hear from you as we all try to move forward on these critical issues. The way we power the things we like to do on this earth is one of those things that really can't be changed without the participation and consent of the public, and it's a sure thing that nothing's going to change for the better unless people learn more about the choices we have – as individuals, as companies, and as a nation – and the pros and cons of each of them.

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01.13 Six Questions to Ask About the Federal Budget

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



One of the biggest problems in getting Americans engaged on the nation's fiscal challenges is that the problem is so hard for most people to get their arms around. The numbers are so huge, the issues so arcane and the problems so daunting that people may get angry about it, but have no idea how to grab onto it.

That's what makes the approach of the Committee on the Fiscal Future of the United States interesting. Their Choosing the Nation's Fiscal Future report, issued by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) today, is about how to control our national debt, already past $12 trillion and threatening to rise to staggering (and dangerous) proportions. Public Agenda is part of the Choosing Our Fiscal Future project with NAPA, working to build a network of citizens who'll get involved in the discussion and work on solutions.

The nonpartisan committee laid out a goal for a sustainable debt level (keeping it to 60 percent of gross domestic product), four alternative paths for reaching the goal, and six basic questions to ask about any federal budget. The committee argues that if the answers to these questions are "yes," we're at least making progress.

Here are the questions, taken directly from the report. Consider whether the federal budget meets them now – and more importantly, keep them in mind as new budgets are proposed.

  1. Does the proposed budget include policy actions that start to reduce the deficit in the near future in order to reduce short-term borrowing and long-term interest costs?
  2. Does the proposed budget put the government on a path to reduce the federal debt within a decade to a sustainable percentage of GDP? Given the fiscal outlook and the committee’s analysis of the many factors that affect economic outcomes, the committee believes that the lowest ratio that is economically manageable within a decade, as well as practical and politically feasible, is 60 percent.
  3. Does the proposed budget align revenues and spending closely over the long term?
  4. Does the proposed budget restrain health care cost growth and introduce changes now in the major entitlement programs and in other spending and tax policies that will have cumulative beneficial fiscal effects over time?
  5. Does the budget include spending and revenue policies that are cost-effective and promote more efficient use of resources in both the public and private sectors?
  6. Does the federal budget reflect a realistic assessment of the fiscal problems facing state and local governments?

This gives the public something they haven't had before: a set of standards for a "good" budget, or at least as good as it can be given the tremendous fiscal challenges we face. If we give the public more tools to measure the problem, and grapple with real solutions, we can get ahead of this challenge – while there's still time.

To find out more, and to become part of the citizen network working on this issue, visit the Choosing Our Fiscal Future web site, become a Facebook fan, or follow us on Twitter @FiscalFuture.

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01.07 Facing a Choice in California

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 | Scott Bittle



A lot of people have been watching the California fiscal crisis nervously, wondering what it could mean for other cash-strapped states and even the federal government. This week we got a glimmer of what it might mean: putting choices before the public.

In his State of the State address Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put forth a plan to cut spending on state prisons and shift the money to higher education. Not only that, but he also proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure that the percentage the state spends on prisons never exceeds spending on higher education. Like nearly everything else in California, this would have to go before the voters in a referendum.

Whatever the merits of the idea – and its prospects for actually becoming law – Schwarzenegger's proposal does something that happens too rarely in politics: putting two different priorities on the table, effectively saying to the public: "Pick one. Colleges are important; so are prisons, but there's only so much money to go around, with California facing another $20 billion deficit this year. I choose colleges. Which do you prefer?"

The idea of choice, of helping the public decide between competing public priorities, is central to public engagement. Under the right conditions, people can and do weigh alternatives and make sound judgments between options. We've seen that in public engagement projects all around the country, on all kinds of topics.

Still, there are a lot of complicated tradeoffs here, and it's not clear whether Californians will get much help figuring them out. There are serious questions about how to cut prison spending and whether privatizing them (Schwarzenegger's preferred option) is a good idea, and about the efficiency of the higher education system. Critics are already raising doubts about whether California needs any more locked-in, voter-mandated programs in a state budget that's already full of them.

Now that Schwarzenegger has put the choice on the table, the next question for leaders, advocates and the media ought to be: what do Californians need to know in order to make it wisely? What are the key facts about colleges, prisons, and the state budget? What are the pros and cons of each path?

And make no doubt about it, there will be pros and cons on both sides. There always are. People can deal with that – if you give them a chance as well as a choice.

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