The campaigns are over. The television ads are gone. It is time to turn our attention to fixing our nation'senormous $16 trillion national debt.
The debt is indeed massive. The publicly held portion of our debt -- the part that experts find to be the most meaningful measure of our indebtedness -- now represents 70 percent of our nation's yearly economic output, the highest since the end of World War II. If our debt continues on its current trajectory, it will be as big as our economy within a decade, and twice the size in only 25 years.
You do not need an economist to conclude that our debt burden is simply unsustainable because we are seeing this play out in Europe, where a debt-fueled fiscal crisis has created high inflation, spiking interest rates and growing levels of unemployment. Unless we change course, Europe's problems will compound the issues we are already facing in this economy.
In the short term, our fiscal problems are no less fickle. Automatic spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will create a fiscal cliff on Jan. 1. While these measures would certainly shrink the deficit by more than $700 billion next year, they would have the negative affect of simultaneously shrinking our economy. That promises to only prolong an already brutal recession.
With this in mind, our direction should be clear: Steer around the fiscal cliff and implement a long-term plan that helps America by stabilizing our national debt. In doing so, we can give ourselves a robust economic future, one in which we can expect low inflation and interest rates, and desperately needed declines in the unemployment rate.
As we've shown right here in Pennsylvania, the first step should be to create smaller, smarter and more efficient spending programs, which will save taxpayers their hard-earned money. Unfortunately, slashing waste, fraud and abuse, while helpful, won't be enough. As Americans, that requires us to commit to solving our problems by shedding our comfort zones.
Examining the efficacy of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid must be done. To be clear, we must protect these programs, but they are on the verge of insolvency and in desperate need of reform. We can improve each of these programs, and in the process, preserve them for our seniors and future generations.
It also is time to re-examine our defense spending and tax structure. We can continue to have the world's strongest military, but let's build it for the 21st century -- not a bygone Cold War era. Our tax system faces a similar challenge. Nearly every American agrees our code is outdated and riddled with loopholes that distort economic activity and drive down revenues.
I acknowledge change will not be easy, but hard choices must be made or our country will continue to spend $400 billion on interest payments alone to our national debt.
The term "national debt" has almost become cliché, so beyond calling for debt stabilization, we have to begin looking at the positive outcomes that can help propel the United States into new era of prosperity.
Think about it: last year alone, we spent $454 billion on interest on the national debt -- more than federal government spent on transportation, housing, education and agriculture, combined.
With $454 billion, our nation could rebuild our public school system and restore opportunities for countless children. At a time when states like Pennsylvania are dealing with aging highways and bridges, we can invest in improvements that will enhance public safety and business opportunities that come with a modern, more efficient highway system. America can also address its dependency on foreign oil by investing money gained from fixing our debt problem into domestic energy sources, including new clean technologies.
Perhaps most important to working families, less debt means less taxes. Families are increasingly forced to make sacrifices in order to meet their tax obligations during what seems to be an endless recession.
Every American can help make this a reality. Join me and 300,000 fellow Americans from across the country by becoming a member of the Campaign to Fix the Debt. Sign the Citizen's Petition at FixTheDebt.org and show our elected leaders in Washington you support their work to make the hard choices we all know are necessary.
Doing nothing means the status quo -- borrowing money from China and Saudi Arabia -- and passing our bills to our children, grandchildren and, yes, our great-grandchildren. The United States of America simply cannot expect to remain the world's dominant power under such circumstances. Americans must work together on the greatest economic problem our nation has faced since the Great Depression.
Dealing with the long-term and near-term challenges will require that we establish new methods of governance built on a foundation of fiscal responsibility. It will require sacrifice, but American courage and fortitude will help to ensure the best days for our nation are ahead.
-- Mark S. Schweiker served as the 44th governor of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.