WASHINGTON — America is entering a period of prolonged austerity. The entitlement commitments made in a past generation have been rendered untenable by demographics and health cost inflation. The problem is no one's particular fault, but it is very, very large. Failing to get our borrowing under control would deny our children the lives we have had in this country.
This readjustment has begun to change the tenor of politics, which is increasingly focused on the distribution of painful burdens. It used to be that a budget compromise between Republicans and Democrats meant both sides got what they wanted — tax cuts and spending increases, respectively — and neither had to pay for it. Now compromise has to involve both sides losing something — through tax increases and spending cuts — and neither getting the political upside. This is what it means to run out of money.
The politics of austerity is inherently divisive. Some are judged worthy; others found lacking. It becomes disturbingly easy to turn group against group. Divisions can arise by class. The top 1 percent of earners take home about 17 percent of national income. They currently pay about 37 percent of federal income taxes. Does the 99 percent want them to pay 40 percent? More?
What burdens should be imposed on the vote-rich middle class? Or the conflict can become generational. In 1970, federal spending on Social Security and Medicare was about 20 percent of the budget. By 2030, it is projected to be 50 percent. Is it fair for those who are younger and poorer to provide dramatically increasing subsidies to those who are older and wealthier?
It is a marvel that anyone should strive and sacrifice to be a legislator in a period of austerity. Perhaps it weeds the field to the most cynical and the most public-spirited. A few demagogues thrive by feeding divisions and then leading factions. But the best leaders in lean times share certain attributes:
A sense of proportion. They focus the most attention on the things that matter most. In our case, the main problem is not simply public spending, it is entitlement programs on a path of accelerating, unsustainable spending.