10/22/2010 05:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Harvard Political Review Publishes Annual Report on America

Amidst the witches and the former madams, the too-damn high guy and the Nazi reenactor, the demon sheep and the Aqua creep, there is finally some rational conversation this election season about the issues that really matter. But this illuminating analysis is not coming from the politicians running for office. No, it's from a group of college undergraduates.

The Harvard Political Review, a nonpartisan undergraduate magazine at Harvard College, has just published The Annual Report of the USA ("ARUSA"). Yes, you heard it right. Just as a corporation reports to its shareholders, ARUSA informs citizens how our country stacks up financially.


The students break down how our tax dollars are being spent -- how much money comes in, and how very much goes out. They write about complex issues such as the national debt, the new health care legislation, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- and much more -- all in a way that is engaging and understandable to everyone.

So how does America fare in 2010? You can probably guess, but here are just some of their findings:
  • In 2010 the U.S. government will spend $1.6 trillion more than it receives in tax revenue. That's more than a 40% shortfall and the largest nominal deficit in history.
  • Total federal debt stands at more than $13 trillion or 84% of GDP (everything we make, sell, or do all year). Forty-eight percent of that is owned by foreign investors, a number more than double what it was 10 years ago.
  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other post-9/11 operations have cost roughly $1.15 trillion over the past decade. That's more than twice what we spend on the entire public education system in a year.
  • Thirty-one percent of the federal budget is spent on just two programs -- Social Security and Medicare. These "mandatory spending" programs can be changed only legislatively and are not part of the budget process. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that in 10 years entitlement spending will cost as much as we spend on the entire budget today.
  • The $787-billion-dollar American Reinvestment Act represents the single largest counter-recessionary effort in American history. The biggest chunks are $288 billion in tax relief and $144 billion to state and local governments. These monies have helped shore up public sector jobs, but there is mixed evidence on the impact to the private sector: the unemployment rate hovers at 9%.

As an alum of the HPR and creator of ARUSA in 1995, I may be a little biased. But what I find most impressive about this report is that it comes from a group of students that spans the political spectrum. Joint editors, Peyton Miller, the editor of The Salient, the conservative rag on campus, and Eva Lam, president of the College Dems, may disagree on some policy issues, but they do agree on the numbers and the implications of what's coming:

"Strained by static revenue and exploding costs across the board, ballooning deficits risk dangerous consequences. Excessive borrowing raises interest rates, reduces private investment, gives foreign lenders diplomatic leverage, and places a huge burden on future generations. Overcoming these problems will require decisive and painful political choices. Providing a clear view of how and why our government spends our tax dollars is the first step to shaping the debate."

For two years now, we've watched our economy flail and thrash in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression -- because of private market largess, yes, but also because of deep and persistent government mismanagement. Quite frankly, some days, it seems we may be looking over the precipice with no idea of how far we may fall.

Perhaps, the pale light in these times of darkness is that we have a younger generation that seems to care. If these students can work together to pinpoint and discuss our problems in a respectful and thoughtful way, why can't our politicians and leaders?

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