By Jon Huntsman
This year marks the centennial anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth--and America finds itself at a crossroads that brings to mind the title of that great man's famous speech in support of Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy: "A Time for Choosing." We should not underestimate the seriousness of the responsibility. This is the moment when we will choose whether we are to become a declining power in the world, or a nation that again surpasses the great achievements of our history.
We are over $14 trillion in debt, $4 trillion more than we owed just two years ago. In 2008, the ratio of public debt to gross domestic product was 40%. Today it's 68%, and we are fast approaching the critical 90% threshold economists warn is unsustainable, causing dramatic spikes in inflation and interest rates, and corresponding declines in GDP and jobs.
Unless we make hard decisions now, in less than a decade every dollar of federal revenue will go to covering the costs of Medicare, Social Security and interest payments on our debt. We'll sink even deeper in debt to pay for everything else, from national security to disaster relief. American families will fall behind the economic security enjoyed by previous generations. Our country will fall behind the productivity of other countries. Our currency will be debased. Our influence in the world will wane. Our security will be more precarious.
Some argue for half-measures, or for delaying the inevitable because the politics are too hard. But delay is a decision to let America decline. The longer we wait, the harder our choices become.
The debt ceiling must be raised this summer to cover the government's massive borrowing, and we must make reductions in government spending a condition for increasing the debt ceiling. This will provide responsible leaders the opportunity to reduce, reform, and in some cases end government programs--including some popular but unaffordable subsidies for agriculture and energy--in order to save the trillions, not billions, necessary to make possible a future as bright as our past. It also means reforming entitlement programs that won't deliver promised benefits to retirees without changes that take account of the inescapable reality that we have too few workers supporting too many retirees.
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I admire Congressman Paul Ryan's honest attempt to save Medicare. Those who disagree with his approach incur a moral responsibility to propose reforms that would ensure Medicare's ability to meet its responsibilities to retirees without imposing an unaffordable tax burden on future generations of Americans.
These aren't easy choices, and we must make them at a time of anemic economic growth and very high unemployment. That's why we must also make sweeping reforms of our tax code, regulatory policies and other government policies to improve our productivity, competitiveness and job creation.
The United States has the second-highest corporate tax rate in the world. We are losing out to countries that make it more attractive for businesses to invest there. Our tax code should encourage American businesses to invest and add new jobs here. We need a tax code that substitutes flatter and lower rates for the bewildering and often counterproductive array of deductions and loopholes, and that provides incentives to encourage savings, investment and growth.
We also need to pursue, as aggressively as other countries do, free trade agreements. Ninety-five percent of the world's customers live outside the U.S. We won't remain the most productive economy in the world if we embrace the mistaken belief that we can prosper by selling and buying only among ourselves, while other countries seize the extraordinary opportunities for economic growth that the global economy offers. Finally, we must reform public education, so that it prepares our children for the economic opportunities of this century, not the last one.
When I was the governor of Utah, we cut and flattened tax rates. We balanced budgets and grew our rainy-day fund. And when the economic crisis struck, we didn't raise taxes or rely on accounting gimmicks to hide obligations. We cut spending and made government more efficient. We increased revenues by facilitating a business environment in which innovators and job creators could expand our economic base. Utah maintained its AAA bond rating, and in 2008 it was named the best-managed state in the nation by the Pew Center on the States. We proved that government doesn't have to choose between fiscal responsibility and economic growth.
We should not accept that election-cycle politics make it too hard to make the decisions that are necessary to preserve the most productive and competitive economy in the world. This is not just a time for choosing new leaders. This is the hour when we choose our future.