Hopefully we won't take our deficit problem too seriously this year but once the recession is clearly behind us, it will be important to address. Very important.
Right now, the problem seems intractable. When a problem can't be solved, it is time to look in new places for solutions.
Currently, there are three places that are considered sacred for budget cuts, three places we don't even consider as sources for potential savings.
1. Defense. We still spend money as if preparing for a large-scale conventional war. We fund weapon systems long past their "not feasible" expiration date. We don't know the difference between war and occupation. But if you want to lose an election, simply mention the possibility that we might want to decrease - rather than increase - defense spending. We will not get to a balanced budget without changing the assumption that defense spending is sacred. We don't have to spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined and it makes up about a trillion of our three trillion budget. I don't know how you ignore this if you are serious about balancing a budget that is off by about a trillion.
2. Social security. Technically off-budget and its own category, but still leaves a large carbon, I mean fiscal, footprint. When it was introduced, social security kicked in around the time that the average person died: life expectancy and retirement age weren't so very different. Today? Very different. This is simple. For my generation, we have got to raise retirement age by 1 to 5 years. This will make a huge difference in the money collected by and paid out from social security. We can't pretend that the rules for when people retire remain unchanged as life expectancies increase.
3. Medicare and all health care. People are bankrupt by medical costs and this is wrong. Millions are not covered and this, too, is wrong. What else is wrong? Covering expenses that are, say, under $1,000 or even $2,500. This creates overhead for billing, adding costs to health care. It makes us less price sensitive (imagine that filling up your gas tank had a set co-pay of $5 whether you were buying it at $2.50 a gallon or $5.20 a gallon) for services whose price would be lower if subject to price competition. And it makes us feel entitled rather than careful about casually using health care. If we did not cover services under some threshold, we could greatly reduce the cost of administration and coverage. Health care - like defense and security - should be a right. That ought not to be construed to mean that every piddling service we need is something we should pay for through the roundabout means of taxation and government reimbursement.
Right now, we can't seem to reduce the deficit, much less balance the budget. When your current set of assumptions preclude your goal, it is time to challenge the assumptions.
Oh, and one other thing. Even challenging spending on these sacred cows will not be enough. We will have to raise taxes. We may as well make the slaughter wholesale.