Commentator Robert Reich
Commentator Robert Reich - 
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SCOTT JAGOW: Balancing the budget by 2012. President Bush has promised to do it. The Democrats scoff. This week, a bipartisan panel came up with its own plan for balancing the budget. The presidential candidates will be asked about it. Commentator Robert Reich says this is all an exercise in futility.

ROBERT REICH: When Bill Clinton was in the White House and the Republicans ran Congress, it was Republicans who demanded that the federal budget be balanced.

That was because they wanted to cut federal spending.

Now that George Bush is in the White House and Democrats run Congress, it's Democrats who are outraged by what they consider to be an irresponsibly rosy scenario in the President's new budget, which he claims will be balanced by 2012.

Impossible, say the Democrats, who want to roll back his tax cuts on the wealthy.

Let's take a time out here and ask ourselves why it's so important to balance the federal budget in the first place.

The federal budget is just an accounting convention. And a lousy one at that. It doesn't distinguish between spending to pay off obligations made in the past, spending intended to make us better off today and spending to make us more productive in the future.

Any family knows the difference between past, present, and future. Between, say, paying down the mortgage, going on an ocean cruise, or paying college tuition for the kids. You've got to honor past obligations, you live today on the basis of what you can afford to do today, and you should make investments in the future. Even if you have to borrow to send the kids to college.

But the federal budget is a static account that tells us nothing about past, present or future.

Price supports to protect today's farmers are treated the same way as education and health care for our nation's children, which will shape our future. Social Security surpluses, there because the post-war Boomers are still working but which will turn into giant liabilities in a few years after Boomers begin to retire, are counted in today's revenues.

No one in their right mind should worry about balancing this silly agglomeration.

We should worry instead about putting aside enough to deal with past obligations, devoting no more than we can afford to current needs, and making adequate future investments. Even if we have to borrow in order to make them.

JAGOW: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich now teaches public policy at the University of California Berkeley.