If youâÄôve ever dreamed of rolling up your sleeves and having a crack at solving the nationâÄôs problems, nowâÄôs your chance. Last week, The New York Times unveiled a comprehensive online tool that allows readers to try balancing the federal budget on their own. ItâÄôs eminently instructive and a superlative example of journalism taking full advantage of the interactive Web.
House Republicans, led by Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., also unveiled a new media budget solver for the masses earlier this year, called YouCut. Unfortunately, the site offers cuts without context.
Context is everything in the budgetary process, and the Times offers plenty. Their budget tool was designed in part by economists, and it brings a few stark realities to the fore. First, most spending amounts to small change when you look at the elephants in the room: Social Security, Medicare, tax cuts and military spending. ItâÄôs also clear that major sacrifices must be made across the board âÄî any viable solution will balance new taxes with cuts and reforms. Democrats will have to shave off some of their most sacrosanct programs, and Republicans will have to abandon their decades-long crusade against raising taxes. The American people can expect to pay more taxes and receive less late-life benefits in return. Everyone will have to give their pound of flesh.
Of course, even when we collectively balance the federal budget, it will only be a first step. The real challenge ahead is a fundamental shift in politics, requiring party agendas to always play second fiddle to the ideal of national solvency. But alas, the myth of bottomless American prosperity is strong, and it will take more than a clever Web application to change the culture of Washington.