What is the proper role and size of government? How can budget-related public policy decisions be consistent with the nation’s values and traditions when they affect different groups differently? Can the nation ensure a healthy quality of life to its most vulnerable citizens while also investing in the future? In the civics/government section of the Understanding Fiscal Responsibility curriculum, students engage high-stakes, public policy dilemmas for which, in a democracy, there are no easy answers. In sorting through the conflicting principles and priorities that drive debate and discord on how much to spend and whether or where to cut, students learn to better understand their own point of view, the perspective of those with whom they disagree, and the bases for common ground.

This section contains the following lessons:

Social Security, Governance, and the National Debt


What responsibility does the federal government have to ensure the elderly a secure and stable standard of living?


  • A bedrock of the social contract as envisioned in the New Deal
  • A redistributionist Ponzi scheme that perpetuates fraud on the American public and silently ushers in a collectivist, socialist mentality
  • A looming budgetary disaster that nobody wants to talk about—the third rail of politics
  • The basis of the modern social welfare state that is fundamentally sustainable and must be preserved

Social Security, the largest program of the federal government, can be all of those things to different people. Why is it so important and so popular, and yet so controversial? Do the competing views on the program simply reflect different assessments of the cost of the program, or do they also reflect different visions of what kind of country we are and what role we want the federal government to play in our lives?


Medicare, Governance, and the National Debt


What level of medical care should the federal government provide for the elderly, and what trade-offs are we willing to make to provide that care?


Having given our pensioners their medical care in kind, why not food baskets, why not public housing accommodations, why not vacation resorts, why not a ration of cigarettes for those who smoke and of beer for those who drink?

-Barry Goldwater, 1964 (Nichols, 2011, p. 16)

Don’t ever argue with me [about health]. I’ll go a hundred million or billion or health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird [Mrs. Johnson] buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. Education and health. I’ll spend the goddam money. I may cut back some tanks. But not on health.

-Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965 (New York Times, 2009)

In 1966, with the active leadership and support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress passed the act establishing Medicare, a program of government-sponsored health insurance for those aged 65 years or older. In 1972 it was amended to include the disabled. Although beneficiaries pay premiums for voluntary parts of the program, the basic benefit of Medicare, the benefit covering hospital care, is financed by a dedicated payroll tax. In 2011, that tax totaled 2.9% of an employee’s salary, half of which was paid by the employee and half by his or her employer. Medicare faces dramatic shortfalls in the future as the population ages and the average per-person cost of American medical care continues to rise (from an average of $356 per person per person in 1970 to an average of $6,697 per person in 2005).


National Security Goals, the Federal Budget, and the National Debt


Can the United States make a decision to reduce or modify spending on defense without jeopardizing the country’s security goals?


I think that our rising debt level . . . poses a national security threat, and it poses a national
security threat in two ways. It undermines our capacity to act in our own interest, and it does
constrain us where constraint may be undesirable. And it also sends a message of weakness

—Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (Council on Foreign Relations, 2010)

How safe is the United States? Since September 11, 2001, this question has often been associated with the perceived threat of terrorism, but in a March 28, 2012, poll by Gallup, when Americans were asked to rank threats about which they worry “a great deal,” they identified the economy (71%), gas prices (65%), and federal spending and the budget deficit (60%) well above the possibility of future terrorist attacks (35%) (Saad, 2012). A March 21–22, 2012, Rasmussen survey found, in fact, that only 25% of Americans say that the United States “doesn’t spend enough” on defense (Rasmussen Reports, 2012).


Political Beliefs and the Federal Budget


Should political philosophy influence how we view the federal budget?


Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer but the right answer. Let us
not seek to fix the blame for the past—let us accept our own responsibility for the future.

—John F. Kennedy, 1958 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, n.d.)

On February 18, 1958, at a speech before the Loyola College Alumni Banquet in Baltimore, Maryland, John F. Kennedy called for citizens with different political philosophies to seek common ground and work together to guide the nation into the future. Modern-day political and economic debates are often mired in partisan gridlock, with neither Republicans nor Democrats willing to compromise on the budgetary issues of the day. The growth of political action committees, partisan think tanks, and other ideologically driven organizations has served to further entrench each party’s platform. The parties’ reluctance to give ground is at least predictable. Each has a vision for the nation’s future that fits with its Republican (predominantly conservative) and/or Democrat (predominantly liberal) political philosophy, and those philosophies differ considerably.

To what extent do those philosophies influence our thoughts about the federal budget process? How
consistent are our political views? Can they change? Should they change and, if so, when? Students are
often unprepared to answer these questions. Research shows that adolescent political ideas are not well
organized or aligned to a particular political philosophy in a way they are able to express (Hahn, 1996; Hess, 2009). Students have difficulty connecting their ideas to a position on a public policy or a choice for an elected public official. As a result, students are often disengaged from the political process. Yet discussion of important public policy issues requires that participants understand the basis of their own points of view and the basis of the ideas of others. In order to make an informed choice among public policy options,students must be able to monitor their own judgment and test the validity of their instinctive responses.




Is it convincing facts or effective rhetoric that determines what the public thinks about the debt and the deficit?


When you look at the budget, you’ll see $1.9 trillion worth of new tax revenue and $1.5 trillion worth of more spending.

–House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), February 15, 2012 (Kessler, 2012)

The president’s budget has $1 of revenue for every $2.5 of spending cuts.

–White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, February 12, 2012 (Kessler, 2012)

In his article, “A Guide to Dueling Claims About the Obama Budget,” Glenn Kessler asks, “Are these guys even talking about the same document?” Kessler continues:

All presidential budgets are political documents—and it is easy to play politics with numbers.That’s why such a gap in the rhetoric is even possible. Each side can make a case for their spin, though much of it is dubious….

First of all, notice that Boehner and Lew are only speaking about one side of the ledger—either spending increases or spending cuts. The Republicans then emphasize the tax increases, while the White House deemphasizes them. We also are working with 10-year budget forecasts, even though the budget is rewritten every year, which increases the chance for mischief. (Kessler, 2012)

Plato believed that rhetoric was the art of ruling the minds of men. Though modern politicians may not seek to “rule men’s minds,” they certainly use specific language to convince the voting public to support their cause, as demonstrated in the preceding example. A significant part of this process is crafting their message or political platform and then delivering that message to the American public. Politicians are sometimes gifted orators who can galvanize the public, convincing large groups of individuals to support their party or ideals.