Caroline Baum, the author of "Just What I Said," writes for Bloomberg News.
The debate over more government spending versus fiscal austerity is captivating the nation's capital and providing the best excuse in at least a millennium to recycle St. Augustine ("Lord, make me chaste, but not yet").
What it has failed to do, with rare exception, is produce any viable alternatives.
At least one congressman, however, is crusading for real change. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, introduced his "Roadmap for America's Future," version 2.0, in January. President Barack Obama called it a "serious proposal" when he dropped in on the House Republican retreat.
Compared with the current fiscal crash-and-burn trajectory, the plan reduces deficits and debt, putting the federal budget on a sustainable path; it results in stronger per-capita economic growth, puts Medicare and Social Security on a sound footing and lowers health-care expenses while reducing the number of uninsured.
And that's not Rep. Ryan talking. That's the assessment of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which gave the Roadmap a test drive and found that it performed well.
Ryan's Roadmap is not an austerity plan that slashes benefits to the sick and needy and imposes growth-killing tax increases. Anyone 55 and older will remain in the existing Medicare and Social Security programs. For those younger than 55, benefits will be means-tested and health-adjusted. Even an individual's initial Social Security benefits would be "progressive," with more generous wage-indexing retained for low-income workers. The retirement age would increase gradually, as it should with longer life expectancy.
What's more, individuals would have the option of investing a portion of their payroll taxes in personal-retirement accounts that they can pass along to their heirs.
Those qualifying for Medicare would be given a voucher to purchase health insurance, letting market forces create competition and lower costs. The same goes for Ryan's "patient-centered health-care reform." Increased transparency would let consumers get a better sense of what things cost and what they're getting for their money. The plan provides a refundable tax credit and eliminates the tax exemption for employer-based health care.
But the best part of the Roadmap relates to taxes: Taxpayers would get to choose between filing their taxes the old-fashioned way or filing their return on a postcard equivalent, paying one of two flat rates with virtually no deductions or exemptions.
So why is there so little inside-the-Beltway enthusiasm outside of Ryan's 12 co-sponsors in the House and a handful of reform-minded individuals in the Senate? Where is the courage to confront, and solve, this country's real, intractable fiscal problems? In its latest budget outlook, the CBO warned that federal debt could reach 185 percent of gross domestic product by 2035.
Instead of engaging in meaningful discussion of Ryan's or alternative plans, lawmakers are teeing up the same old debate over more government spending, the effect of which is highly questionable (and that's being generous); and draconian spending cuts and tax increases, which are never fashionable in an election year, nor a good prescription for a weakened economy. Our elected representatives continue to sidestep a real fiscal fix, hoping U.S. Treasuries will be perceived as the least-bad option by international investors for a while longer.
Or maybe Congress actually prefers the status quo, using a loop-holed tax code to reward favored constituencies in exchange for campaign contributions that ensure lifetime employment.
Can there be a better argument for radical fiscal reform?