OpEd: State of the Union Is Mixed

The current state of the union is mixed. While we are a great country, the largest economy, and the world's leading democracy, we face serious challenges that threaten our collective future. Chief among these is our nation's deteriorating financial condition and longer-range fiscal outlook. The plain and simple truth is that if our elected officials do not take steps to put our nation's finances in order, everyone will suffer to differing degrees over time.

While our fiscal challenge is great and over arching in nature, we also need to address other key challenges, including slow economic growth, high unemployment and under-employment, and our inadequate critical infrastructure. Moreover, we need to dramatically reform our policies and approaches to education, energy, the environment, health care, immigration, regulation and taxes. Our nation's leaders must address all of these in order to create a better future for the American people.

But no progress will be meaningful and lasting unless we repair our fiscal foundation. Beyond the short-term deficit and current debt numbers that are well publicized, we face huge financial obligations that could swamp our ship of state in the future. For example, the U.S. government's total liabilities and unfunded promises have skyrocketed from $20.4 trillion in 2000 to about $71.3 trillion today. This amount is growing by about $350 billion a month absent action.

To put it bluntly, the federal government has grown too big, promised too much, and lost control of the budget. The U.S. government is almost 12 times bigger as a percentage of the economy than 100 years ago, and the annual appropriations process only controls about 33 percent of spending versus 97 percent in 1912. So-called mandatory spending will only increase in the future unless we tackle the three primary drivers of our nation's structural deficits—known demographic trends, rising health care costs and an outdated tax system. Failure to address these will have a serious adverse impact on many areas that Americans care about, such as national defense, homeland security, education, energy, infrastructure and the environment.

Unless we take definitive action, rather than simply lurch from one short-term fiscal crisis to another, our standard of living will deteriorate over time and even our domestic tranquility will be threatened. The most vulnerable in our society are likely to be affected most if we experience a U.S. debt crisis, and that is not right. We must not allow our poverty rate to increase and we need to address the growing economic opportunity gap and income disparity.

We must take steps soon to spur economic growth, generate more jobs, increase fiscal responsibility and improve inter-generational equity. We should do so in a comprehensive and integrated package that includes additional investment in critical infrastructure and research, combined with a clear, credible and enforceable plan to address our structural deficits and defuse our ticking debt bomb.

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