Good grief, says an Obama campaign struggling to regain its footing after a bad debate stumble, Mitt Romney said he wants to strip Big Bird of federal funding, and that would be awful. What could really be awful -- a tipping-point calamity for this country of ours -- would be a second Obama term in which the White House continues its politically convenient fiscal negligence.
It's that prospect that was most dramatically exposed in Romney's remarks and then underlined again in the trivializing response that a chubbily successful "Sesame Street" operation needed welfare.
The subject came up after Romney was asked what he would do about deficits. He said first off that the extent of our spending had been immoral. The government was adding $1 trillion a year to a debt that would be "passed on to the next generation," he said, explaining that those victims would "be paying the interest and principal all their lives."
The Republican presidential candidate said one way to address that issue was to get sufficiently serious about spending, to ask of any program whether it was "critical" enough to justify "borrowing money from China to pay for it." As an example, he mentioned stopping subsidies to the Public Broadcasting Service, home of Big Bird, but first mentioned repealing something else, something much bigger, something that sums up Obama's first term: "Obamacare," introduced on formal occasions as the Affordable Care Act.
We'll get back to Obamacare in a moment, but first let's talk about the core issue here, a national debt of $16 trillion that may not even wait until the next generation to visit ruin upon us. Short of serious remedies, the debt will keep the economy in a slow-motion, scarce-jobs mode with the possibility of crises that would make our current struggles seem a mere "ouch" moment in comparison.
The driving force of ever-increasing debt is entitlements, mainly Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which of and by themselves eat up better than half of all federal outlays. As economics columnist Robert F. Samuelson points out, they will do far more chomping than that as the elderly population gets twice as large over roughly the next two decades. There is no tax solution that would be less than devastating for younger workers paying the bill.
This hazard did not appear yesterday. We've known about it for years, but almost every time some bold statesman has suggested a solution, an opportunistic demagogue has risen up to charge that the plan would condemn the elderly to misery. One such statesman was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), now candidate for vice president, who came up with a plan to save both Medicare and the nation and was then put down by one such demagogue, none other than President Barack Obama, who treated his substantive proposals as mean-spirited imperilment.
It's true the president made his own Medicare cuts -- lower fees to hospitals and doctors that will result in reduced treatment options for patients -- but did not thereby help solve the debt problem. He made the cuts to help finance Obamacare. Even though he himself concedes something must be done about entitlements, his only concrete answer to date is to give us another entitlement.
And this particular entitlement happens to be a doozy -- a massively interventionist, bureaucratically cumbersome, still-developing surprise a day that does nothing good that could not have been achieved more cheaply and simply. It meanwhile does a lot that's bad. Just one example lately in the news concerned the Darden restaurant chain experimenting with making full-time employees part time to escape Obamacare costs under coming rules that could endanger its future.
Back to Big Bird and PBS. They won't go away if subsidies go away. They do very well, thank you, and can almost surely pull in more money if that becomes necessary. This country, however, will cease to do well if the desperate need to shrink government continues to be met with a compulsion to expand.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)