By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
During the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday, there was an elephant in the room, and I’m not talking about the Republican Party, whose mascot is the pachyderm.
The elephant would be the $19 trillion national debt, ignored by President Obama during an hour-long speech, which was otherwise pretty good, and alluded to a couple of times by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in her Republican response, which was also pretty good.
What was good about the State of the Union speech was its optimistic tone and its call for reason on issues both at home and abroad. The United States should identify and respond to threats, not inflate them so that it makes bad decisions out of fear. Its politics should be messy, not ugly.
However, the president’s only referral to the government’s red ink was to say that annual budget deficits have been reduced amidst other aspects of an improving economy.
That’s true, but while deficits have decreased, they’re still occurring each year, and still adding to the national debt. At the tail end of the Bush administration and the first half of Obama’s, the United States government was spending more than $1 trillion more than it collected each year – more than $3,000 per American per year, and at its worst, $4,000. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the deficit for fiscal year 2015 was $439 billion, or almost $1,400 per American.
Yes, that’s an improvement. We’re adding to the debt less quickly than we were before.
But during this prolonged period of economic growth, policymakers have failed to act to reduce future deficits. They haven’t make changes to the government’s retirement and health care programs that soon will help drive those annual deficits back to $1 trillion levels. They’ve failed to reform a tax code to juice the economy by, if nothing else, reducing the time we all spend doing our taxes. They haven’t created a sustainable method to fund the country’s infrastructure.
The economy is much better than it was in the midst of the Great Recession. Unfortunately, it remains dependent on debt – and worse, the kind caused by in-and-out spending, not investment.
That’s why potentially one of the most important paragraphs in Obama’s speech was tucked in the middle, when he said the United States should cure cancer.
That’s exactly the kind of investment that can make life better for Americans and help reduce all that red ink described earlier in this column. According to the National Institutes of Health, cancer cost the health care system $124.6 billion in 2010 and will cost $158 billion in 2010 dollars in 2020 – and that’s not including the impact of each invaluable life lost, nor the financial and emotional losses suffered by cancer patients and their loved ones. The disease often strikes people during their most productive years, or before they’ve even reached those years. All those things slow the economy, cost taxpayer dollars, and add to the debt.
At the same time we’re spending that kind of money to treat the disease, Congress recently appropriated $5.2 billion for cancer research this fiscal year, which is actually a raise from the previous $4.9 billion. That’s pretty good, but we could do better.
Since 2009, the national discussion over heath care has been about bureaucracies – what kind and how much. At some point, it would be helpful to talk about health care when we’re talking about health care. Curing the various types of cancer would be one of the greatest investments America could ever undertake. It would increase Americans’ ability to enjoy their inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It would be a far greater service to the world than many of the things we’ve been doing since 2001. It would be a wonderful gift to future generations and sort of make up for the debt we’re passing down to them.
The research must take into account not only medical effectiveness, but cost-effectiveness. The NIH assumes in its analysis that new technologies and treatments will cost more, not less. So not only must cures be found, but costs must be affordable – both for Americans and for poorer countries.
We can do it. Americans put a man on the moon. Let’s find cures for cancer next.
Related: Who gets first dibs on Uncle Sam’s money? Its creditors, of course.