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{Published May 5, 2010, in the Colorado Springs Gazette}

Two columns ago (before I was so rudely interrupted by Earth Day) I wrote about the importance of cutting taxes and cutting spending. The column was very specific on taxes (abolish the income tax), but readers properly took me to task for not specifying which spending programs should go under the knife. Here’s my answer: Entitlements and defense.

Entitlement increases are mandated by law, that’s true. But they are mandated by the laws of man, not the laws of physics. What Congress does, Congress can undo, particularly if its members believe it will not cost them their jobs. And therein hangs the tale.

Members of Congress are not any nobler, more generous, or more thoughtful than the rest of us. They respond to incentives just like we do. In this case, they pay attention to what will help them get and stay elected.

The biggest problem with cutting entitlement programs is that voters like them. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Fortunately, there is a way out of the dilemma. It is politically difficult, but not impossible. It is the message of shared sacrifice for a brighter future. Short-term pain for long-term gain.

All entitlements, especially the most popular ones, need to be cut. Since the largest programs are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, a statesmanlike approach to building the necessary consensus would start with the elderly (in which I must now count myself, thanks to the unsolicited AARP membership card that arrived in my mailbox a few days ago. Ouch.). If I were running for national office and invited to address the AARP, I would say something like this:

“My fellow seniors, America’s present level of debt is unsustainable. We have tripled the deficit in only two years. Our public debt is now over half of GDP, the highest since World War II, almost all of it owed to foreign governments that do not have our best interests at heart. If entitlements are not reformed, the debt will soar to over 70% of GDP in just a few years, a level which will place our country in severe peril. Nor can we sit idly by and let the bad decisions of previous administrations lead to the largest transfer of wealth from young to old in the history of America. That is not what America is all about.”

The military budget shouldn’t get a free pass either. We should maintain only the kind of defense posture we can afford, and nothing more. This in turn will require a defense policy that is focused on the protection of the lives, liberty and property of Americans. It will require a distinction between fighting America’s sworn enemies and remaking the world in our image.

That is a distinction we do not currently make, because we think we don’t have to. The evidence says otherwise. We simply do not have the money to pursue all our present military and foreign policy objectives. That means we must make hard choices.

I don’t know which major party is best suited to deliver this message. Democrats are typically better at the “sacrifice for the common good” idea, but nowadays they only want “the rich” to sacrifice. That won’t cut it anymore.

Soaking the rich to solve our financial crisis would be like dampening a washcloth and throwing it into a burning building.

Republicans are always good on cutting taxes, which is a big plus. But the neoconservatives in the GOP believe the military budget to be sacrosanct. To make matters worse, the last Republican administration ran entitlement spending through the roof. For a party that claims to be fiscally responsible, tax cuts without spending cuts are the height of hypocrisy.

Maybe the approach has to be bipartisan. Or maybe the [[libertarian]] movement will start to make some headway. The influence of the tea partiers and their admirable emphasis on financial issues over social ones is definitely a sign of hope. So is a new rising star in the GOP, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan. He clearly understands the problem, and has advanced courageous proposals to solve it.

One way or another, delusion will lose and reality will win. The only question is: Which side will we be on?