University professors address growing U.S. fiscal concerns

Nationwide campus competition seeks to inform students about federal debt, U.S. financial woes


U.S. fiscal stability is a long way off, University professors told students Friday during a lecture series Friday entitled “HOOs Talking about the National Debt.”

The event was sponsored by Up to Us — a nationwide campus competition created by Net Impact, the Clinton Global Initiative and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation — which seeks to teach students about taking action on the federal debt. The series was planned by five fourth-year students from the University who were selected as one of 12 student teams from across the nation to design a campus campaign.

“Spending by the government since World War II has been on an upward trend,” said Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics. “We’ve only been in surplus a few times since [then].”

Politicians have been responsive to public pressure to decrease costs across many governmental sectors, but Volden said in many instances their hands are tied. There are many federal programs whose budgets the federal government is required to fill, often called entitlement programs, Volden said, and these required programs drive up government spending. “Discretionary spending [or spending not required under long-term federal commitments] has gone from two-thirds to one-third of the federal budget since the 1960s, meaning there is less to be [easily] cut,” he said.

The Americans who will face the greatest burden from the debt are not current voters, but children and those who have yet to be born, Volden said. “We have a responsibility to set aside our own public interests to speak for these kids,” he said. “It really is up to us.”

But fourth-year College student Lena Shi, a co-planner of the event, said many young adults do not understand the issues surrounding the national debt.

“People in our generation are not involved in the conversation,” she said. “Our main goal [in planning this event] is to personalize the conversation to U.Va. students.”

Tom Massaro, law and medicine prof. emeritus, spoke about the crucial role health care costs play into the national debt, saying Medicare and Medicaid spending totaled nearly 1 trillion dollars in 2011.

“To deal with the magnitude of the challenges we’re talking about, the reality is that we will all have to change,” Massaro said. “Everyone will have to change the way they view their health care.”

Politics Prof. Herman Schwartz addressed what he called “The Phony Fiscal Crisis,” in his talk — how the entire conversation surrounding the fiscal crisis needs to be redefined. “[The fiscal crisis] is not the crisis we need to worry about,” he said.

Schwartz said the crises of the health care system and job market are problems demanding immediate attention, in contrast to fiscal problems which “are very slow moving.”

Improving the economy and resolving the nation’s debt problems would likely involve accruing short-term deficits to pay down the long-term costs, Schwartz said. “[Solutions] have nothing to do with ‘cutting spending’,” he said. “It’s about putting people back to work.”

Following the talks, students engaged in a question and answer session. Shi said the co-planners were pleased with the student response at the event.

“Lots of students came, not knowing much about the debt,” Shi said. “What was really special for us to see was that people were asking questions. It really sparked the learning process, and that’s what we’re proud of.”

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