Slicing the Pie
How Monitor readers would serve up a balanced federal budget
WHEN the Monitor published the opinion-page chart ''A Balanced Budget: Easy As Pie?'' Feb. 17, we asked readers how they would allocate funds if the budget had to be balanced. We showed how the $1,408 billion of federal money was allocated for fiscal year 1995, and asked you to think of a portion representing the deficit as unspendable. Most readers found it challenging to work with such a tight budget. But one did reply, ''No Sweat!''
We've received about 500 responses, and the pies still trickle in daily.
We were able to statistically analyze 266 of the budgets for the graphic summaries you see here. Respondents included individuals from all over the country: families, husband-and-wife teams, a college political science class, and a sixth-grade class. Comments ranged from humorous to thoughtful to extreme. Below are some excerpts from the many letters we received.
The willingness of so many readers to engage in this exercise is heartening. Maybe somehow we can slice the pie and eat it too!
I have not taken any funds from ''National Defense.'' This is the most important function of a federal government and is an excellent way to put young men and women to work with education and discipline. It is also an important way to maintain a highly technical industry that is labor intensive and whose equipment is mostly made in the United States.
Robert A. Brown
Arroyo Grande, Calif.
Some retirees are secure enough
Social Security is politically touchy. However, there is a powerful case for denying Social Security. We are living longer and healthier lives; therefore we should be expected to work longer. Closely related to that is means testing. Well-to-do Americans with ample interest and dividend incomes, for example, should receive reduced or no Social Security benefits; all of this would be computed on graduated scales.
This answer is politically impossible because there is precious little courage on Capitol Hill or in the White House.
Steven W. Hinkhouse
West Liberty, Iowa
Step up development aid
I would increase funding for the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and increase funding for the fragile poorer nations that are committed to democratic or economic reform, such as Benin, Ghana, Zambia, Namibia, and South Africa. Less developed countries are in the interest of the US in relation to world peace and security, economics, environmental affairs, and educational and cultural exchanges.
Social Security should be phased out over a 47-year period. People who are under the age of 18 should never pay into it. For those above 18, the younger you are the less you should pay in and therefore the less you will receive. Private retirement programs should replace the entitlement-pension portion of Social Security.
Stephen A. King
Extend health-care coverage
Medicaid should be available to uninsured working people (in the absence of a preferable single-payer, Canadian-style health-care system ). Also, contain costs by employing more health-care professionals such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and physicians' assistants (many of whom could be trained with funds from entitlements) rather than physicians.
Cut, cut, cut
Industry has in many cases demonstrated that a 50 percent cut is possible and the result is a stronger company. So why not government? My allocation includes elimination of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and a 50 percent reduction of the Defense Intelligence Agency. I would also eliminate subsidies to sugar farmers and funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Endowments for the Humanities and the Arts.
Ray L. Reed
Deerfield Beach, Fla.
Adjust spending to population
We need some straight talk on this subject if we are to balance our budget:
1. Stop talking about cutting funding. The vast majority of people do not understand that this, in most cases, refers to reducing projected increases.
2. Start talking about limiting further increases to current spending levels plus inflation and an adjustment for increased population.
If we would limit entitlements and defense to increases related only to the overall inflation rate we could grow our way to a balanced budget as productivity increases. We should also gradually increase the retirement age. As we live longer we should stay active and contribute to our economy for a longer time.
Charles G. Peter
Increase taxes to pay off debt
The graphic suggests that balancing the budget is only a matter of deciding on cuts, rather than confronting the difficult question of fair, increased taxation that could help to ease us out of the hole.
The budget-pie exercise does not allow for tax increases in places where they could be justified, perhaps value-added taxes on high-priced luxury purchases. The percentages that derive from a budget are products of policies and not merely arbitrary decisions that can be made in the comfort of our middle- and upper-class living rooms.
Robert W. Feragen
If faced with the current budget situation, I would choose to raise the tax rate on the American public in order to pay for the continuation and expansion of vital social services and environmental protection.
Bryan David Hunt Washington
There were unacceptable assumptions built into your pie chart. Chief among these is that there is no way to raise additional revenue. Nonsense! There are huge areas of the American economy that do not pay a fair share of taxes or at least, don't pay the share they did 20 to 30 years ago. I refer to business and corporations.
The demise of corporate profit taxes and their replacement with a reliance on taxes on personal income only are the real root of the problem.
Frederick W. Plapp Jr. College Station, Texas
Give responsibility to locals
Many of the federal programs can be better run if run locally. Block grants could initially replace all welfare payments.
The states and local governments could eventually replace the block grants with their own taxes as the federal government reduced taxes by an amount equal to the welfare programs.
Poverty, single-parent households, and school failures were declining before the Great Society programs were implemented.
Now each of those problems has gotten worse. If we want to solve those problems then we must hand the responsibility back to the local communities. Many say Social Security can't be touched. But how about cutting the highest income recipients -- say those recipients making more than $100,000 or $250,000? Or at least Ross Perot?
Limit entitlement spending
Seeking to balance the budget without great swings in revenues or expenditures requires doing so over several years.
By limiting the rate of growth of entitlement spending to under 3 percent (real increase) per year, a balanced budget should occur within a decade, as revenues (produced by an expanding economy) increase.
The missing ingredient or pie section is time, i.e., a political willingness to limit today's spending to today's income.
We pay upward of $210 billion yearly, or 15 percent of the budget, to honor past borrowing. That percentage will likely increase if we cannot find the political will to live within a balanced budget.
I would eventually eliminate most farm subsidies, but it would have to be done incrementally. Food stamps could be revamped and Social Security could have a means test attached to it. I don't want to take food out of the mouths of the elderly on fixed income, but if you have a pension of $40,000, you can afford to receive a little bit less in Social Security. And lastly, entitlement programs should be looked at as a way to possibly save, again using incremental measures to slowly decrease the level of funding to what I hope would be no more than 4 or 5 percent.
Patrick J. Hogan
Create 'market' for favorite cause
I think we should have a ''stock market'' for federal expenditures, where each taxpaying citizen could allot his or her taxes to their favorite cause on a weekly basis. This would force taxpayers to think politically, create competition among the departments to create better services, and save a bunch of budget-debating time and debauchery in Congress.
Make cuts across the board
The budget never gets balanced because everyone is promoting their own priorities, and balancing the budget is considered to be of secondary importance.
If one is truly interested in balancing the budget, any cuts made should reflect national priorities, not one's personal preferences. Since, presumably, the current budget represents the sum total of our nation's diverse priorities, any cuts made should be across the board.
This across-the-board solution may sound simplistic, but I see no other way to persuade a Congress of such diverse interests to agree on such drastic cuts.
Devise a phase-in period
I found this exercise to be extremely educational and it certainly taught me that it would be very difficult to accomplish and would demand a phase-in period of 5 to 10 years.
*Defense: Since we outspend the rest of the world, we should aim to get to 10 percent -- we would still be the world's superpower.
*Veterans: I would close all veterans' hospitals and move all veterans to managed-care Medicare. I would discontinue supplemental security income for legal immigrants. I would cap legal immigration at 100,000, raise educational requirements, and require fluency in English.
*Discretionary spending should be increased to allow for emergency safety nets.
Desmond F. McLaughlin
Stop Medicare, increase Medicaid
I would eliminate Medicare. It is simply too expensive to provide all persons over 65 with national health care. Instead, I would increase Medicaid to cover the costs of providing health care for the needy in all age categories, including the elderly.
I believe the discretionary spending is too vague, and therefore is susceptible to blind spending. Government agencies in this category can learn to run a tighter ship, without directly harming large portions of the population -- the most vulnerable of which are children who depend on their parents' AFDC, food stamps, and Medicaid. ''Slicing the pie'' is a hard task, as I discovered! May the best proposal for the common good win!
*This package was coordinated by Stacy Teicher and Lisa Parney of the editorial-page staff.
If you would like us to invite reader response on other issues, please send your ideas to ''Readers Write,'' by mail to One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617-450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.