Guns or Butter? Decisions After the Failure of the Super Committee

Any college freshman in Econ 101 can tell you about the famous "Guns or Butter" model. A simplified version of a country's spending choices, it lays out the costs and benefits of investing in "guns" (defense), or "butter" (civilian goods).

The recent failure of the not-so-super committee, which triggered a $1.2 Trillion guillotine to the 2012 budget, has forced us into a classic guns vs. butter showdown. With about half of the cuts falling on the budgets of Medicare and other entitlements, and the other half falling on the Pentagon, it seems that Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle should have paid more attention in class.

It's not that the super committee failed that's so surprising, but bipartisan rallying in the aftermath of the failure that should turn some heads.

In the aftermath of the $1.2 Trillion cut that purposely targeted the defense budget to avoid the failure of the super committee, leaders on both sides of the aisle have shown support for evading the $600 Billion cut in the defense budget. Needless to say, support has been limited for rescuing the other programs, all domestic, doomed for the axe.

Guns or Butter? Let's examine the options.

Guns? Ten years after 9/11 our war on terror has metastasized beyond the caves of Tora Bora. Beyond the decade-long slog that's claimed hundreds of thousands of lives -- Afghan and American -- in Afghanistan, our military carries out daily drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Most recently, in fact, one of these drone strikes perpetrated the extrajudicial assassination of an American citizen. Soon after, another was ordered to murder his son, 16, also an American. Not to mention our misguided, unfounded, and tremendously damaging war in Iraq -- a war that is estimated to have taken the lives of over 66,000 Iraqi civilians. What's worse, if you listen closely, you can hear the war drums beating, yet again. They're hungry for Iran. Both of the most likely Republican nominees for president -- Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich -- have openly suggested they would go to war with the rogue Middle Eastern country. And rumors from across the pond suggest that the UK is already gearing up for an attack. Finally, the latest version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which covers over $660 Billion in defense spending for the upcoming fiscal year was recently passed by the Senate on a 93-7 margin. What else is included in the bill? A provision that would allow the military to detain American citizens suspected of terrorism indefinitely -- without the right to a trial.

Butter? Baby-boomers are retiring in droves. As more of them cash in on their benefits, Medicare costs are on the rise. Although Medicare spending is, by far, the fastest growing and most substantial line-item in the government's growing deficit, make no mistake: failing to support our elderly would be even more costly. If Medicare were underfunded, the burden of providing health care for elderly parents would fall on the backs of America's already struggling workforce, still recuperating from the worst financial crisis since the great depression and ridden by the vicious unemployment in its wake. Another byproduct, of course, would be the needless suffering, emotional and physical, of a generation of elderly Americans who have worked tirelessly in support of our country.

What's more, while the Medicare budget is primarily earmarked to provide our elderly with access to affordable, high quality, and dependable health care, it certainly goes further than that. For example, Medicare funds pay salaries for residents, recent medical grads who work in trainee capacities in hospitals throughout our country. Sharp cuts in the Medicare budget that would affect residents' salaries could result in an acute shortage in trainee doctors that would disturb the day-to-day operations of America's hospitals. The knock-on effects would be severe.

Contrary to popular opinion, this isn't the first time we've faced similar budgetary choices. But in the past, our leadership was up to the task. Pinched between the Vietnam War and his Great Society campaign to decimate poverty and racial inequality, President Lyndon B Johnson drafted a letter to Congress to force them to action in the Summer of 1967. Entitled "The Hard and Inescapable Facts," his opening line was "Behind the accounts that make up the Nation's budget lies the pursuit of America's responsibility and purpose at home and abroad."

We face, today, our own hard and inescapable facts that call into question what the most important pursuits of America's responsibility and purpose at home and abroad really are. Guns to kill people in other countries or butter to save people in our own?