On Sunday, Cheryl and I joined millions of Americans to watch the Season Premiere of Downton Abbey. As we are drawn to their lavish 1920s lifestyle, we also retain a degree of detachment, knowing that it soon will come to an end. Unfortunately, in too many ways the England of Downton Abbey is too similar to the America of today.
Downton Abbey is the tale of a family steeped in traditions, yet engaged in excessive spending and entitlements. They continue these practices despite repeated warnings that they are not sustainable.
The fact the patriarch, Robert Crawley, is only able to maintain the estate due to the dowry his American wife brought to the marriage is a perfect metaphor for the fact that England was only able to maintain its standard of living in the 1920s due to loans from American banks.
A Changing World
In the 1920s, Britannia no longer ruled the waves. Americans were leapfrogging ahead due to their commitment to leave a better world for their children, and their concomitant investments in education and transportation. Meanwhile, Germany and Japan were shedding centuries of tradition to become engines of economic growth.
How much is this discussed around the dinner table at the Crawleys or in the Halls of Westminster? Precious little.
How much is America’s current precarious situation discussed around our dinner tables or in the Halls of Congress? Precious little.
As England lived as though Britannia still ruled the waves, America is living as though the 25-year golden age after World War II, when we had no serious economic challengers, never ended. It was a period when the developed world was recovering from the ravages of total war and the deaths of eighty million people, and when billions more people were escaping the chains of communism and colonialism.
Today we have those competitors and we are burdened by a nearly twenty trillion-dollar debt, which rises every year. The problem has become so severe that our national deficit has become a national security threat.
Our Best Days Can be Ahead of Us
America’s best days can be ahead of us, and by a very large margin. However, to achieve our full potential, we first must address our national debt crisis.
The Deficit Triangle
Just as there is a right way and a wrong way to treat human cancers, there is a right way and a wrong way to treat a deficit. It starts by understanding there actually is a Deficit Triangle in America, just as there was in England a century ago; we have a budget deficit, an investment deficit, and a trade deficit.
Only treating the budget deficit by raising taxes and cutting spending -- without addressing the investment and trade deficits -- will make solving the budget deficit more difficult, if not impossible. This interconnection is clearly laid out in a report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and The Breakthrough Institute.
America effectively addressed the Deficit Triangle in the 20th century, not by raising taxes and indiscriminate spending cuts, but by focusing on innovation and productivity. That led to sustained productivity growth, investment and trade surpluses, smaller budget deficits, and most importantly of all, the creation of the American middle class.
The laws of economics haven’t changed: we need to again focus on productivity and innovation.
Get Washington Out of the Way
The good news is much of what needs to be done is simply getting Washington out of the way. Small business is a major engine of innovation, productivity, and job growth. It also is the seed of almost every big business. Yet we have systematically made it more difficult for small businesses to succeed.
Unreasonable lending standards make it difficult for small businesses to get the funds they need. The marginal tax rates need to be lowered, and deductions that disproportionately benefit big business need to be reduced. Similarly, much of the regulatory climate is so complex, only large businesses can steer their way through. The regulatory scheme must be dramatically simplified.
We also can and should significantly increase our public investment in infrastructure - and we can do so without raising taxes. For example, each year Californians pay more than $10 billion in road taxes. However, only a fraction of our road taxes are spent on roads.
Road taxes should be spent on, well, roads - not the countless other pet projects and special interests they get siphoned off toward. As big as this problem is at the state level, it is geometrically bigger at the federal level.
Similarly, we can significantly increase the quality of education without increasing spending. Harnessing the power of information technology, allowing hiring-and-firing decisions to be made based on teacher quality and performance, expanding school choice to disenfranchised communities, shifting funds from bureaucrats to our hard working teachers, and other common-sense reforms can lead to a new Golden Age in American education.
Is it Essential? Is It Productive?
In addition to reforming institutions, as taxpayers we need to get a much better return on our investment. As a U.S. senator, I will ask a simple question: will the use of these funds meet an essential need and/or be a productive investment?
Payments made in conjunction with essential components of our national security, essential government functions and essential elements of the social safety net should be maintained. All other government programs and personnel should be eliminated.
Productive investments always were and always will be the key to America’s success. The Erie Canal, railroads, public education, the interstate transportation system, the computer, and the Internet all sprung from government investments.
Today, ARPA-E (the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy) is an example of a current limited, focused productive investment worthy of government support. ARPA-E funds small groups of researchers, engineers, and entrepreneurs focused on breakthroughs in clean energy technology. It is modeled after the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been responsible for many breakthrough innovations, including stealth-fighter technology and the Internet.
ARPA-E plays a critical role in clean energy innovation by improving our understanding of clean energy technologies and targeting and investing in high-risk, high-reward technologies that would create significant social and economic value. ARPA-E has the potential to help close the investment deficit by developing ideas that can turn into products to make the use of energy more efficient and decrease harmful emissions. It can help reduce the trade deficit by reducing our dependence on the importation of foreign oil.
Productive investments in programs like ARPA-E should be maintained. All other subsidies and tax breaks to oil, ethanol, and mature industries should be eliminated and the tax and regulatory environment should be dramatically streamlined.
A New Burst of Opportunity
As we continue to enjoy watching Downton Abbey, let us not forget the high cost England paid for not dealing with their Deficit Triangle and we are for failing to deal with ours. By limiting our expenditures to essential programs and productive investments, we can help enter in an age that will provide us with a new burst of economic opportunity and a sustainable planet.