02/11/2011 06:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fiscal Follies: Tackling the National Debt in 500 Words or Less

Since we write about public opinion and believe strongly in public engagement, we'll be the first to admit that much of the public is woefully uninformed about the federal budget and the country's choices for getting a handle on its mushrooming national debt. Most Americans know it's a problem, and they want it fixed. After that, things get a lot hazier.

Unfortunately, the country's leadership has now frittered away much of the time we could have used to educate the American people on this issue. President Obama is submitting his proposed budget Monday, and Republicans are already putting out their counter-plans, but neither has really laid the groundwork with the public for the implications of the spending cuts or tax increases that are necessary if we really want to get our finances under control. Now we really need to get a move on, and the electorate is both unrealistic and cranky.

So here goes. Here's what Americans really need to know (in 500 words or less):

  • We have to start now because this could get ugly really fast. In about 10 years, the federal debt will be as big as our entire economy --100 percent of GDP. We'll be spending more on interest payments than on defense.
  • Just cutting what people normally think of as "big government" won't do it. In 2010, the deficit was about $1.3 trillion. Eliminating the Departments of Education, Energy, Agriculture, Transportation, HHS, and HUD entirely would save less than $300 billion. We would still have a trillion dollars worth of red ink.
  • Income tax rates are lower now than they have been for most of the last four decades. In the 1970s, top tax rates were twice as high. We've extended current rates for two years while the economy improves. After that, they need to be on the table.
  • Yes, Social Security and Medicare are part of it. In as little as 10 years, government auditors say that spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, plus interest on the debt, could suck up more than 90 cents out of every tax dollar. There would be almost no money for anything else.
  • It's time to stop the blame game. The federal budget has been in the red for 31 out of the last 35 years, and both President Bush and President Obama added trillions of dollars to the debt. There's enough blame to go around. It's finding solutions that matters.
  • Don't fall for the bogus Beltway debate over "tackling the budget" versus "focusing on the economy." It's a false choice. We have to do both, and we can decide on changes now that kick in once the economy improves.
  • There are hundreds of different proposals that would help. The big choice for most of us is whether to go with one that focuses on cutting spending even in popular areas to keep taxes low, or one that preserves popular programs, but raises taxes instead. Nearly all reasonable plans include some of both.
  • Be ready to compromise. To solve this problem, we'll all have to live with something we don't like. Refusing to compromise means more delay, and that's the one thing we can't afford.
  • If we act quickly and responsibly, we can do this.