Can we get an app for austerity?

Merriam-Webster, the dictionary company, named “austerity” as the 2010 word of the year. Politicians of all stripes love to talk about their dedication to ridding government of unnecessary spending — most often that waste, fraud and abuse we all hate so much.

Hey, even Jerry Brown, the old new governor of California, says he’s cutting that state’s budget. Lest you think your eyesight is bad, you read that right.

But austerity?

According to the dictionary editors, there were 250,000 searches for the word on their online site during the year. Austerity is a 14th-century noun defined as “the quality or state of being austere” and “enforced or extreme economy.”

Boy, could we use some of that.

So far, the new Congress has already managed to cut by half its promise to eliminate $100 billion from this year’s budget.

Hey, wait a minute! We need to cut the amount we’re spending — not the amount we’re cutting. Perhaps Americans need to clarify what kind of “austerity” they’re looking for.

Not to be outdone, the American Dialect Society — yes, there is one, and it was founded in 1889 — also named a word of the year. It is “app.” If you don’t know what that is, just ask any teenager or anyone with an iPhone.

I find it interesting that two such different words — one a 14th-century noun, the other a newfangled abbreviation — were both chosen as American words of the year.

But in the parlance of the commercials: Oh, that it were so easy as to provide an app for austerity — particularly when it comes to cutting the budget and paying down the debt.

Too much going out in social welfare programs like unemployment benefits? There’s an app for that — job creation.

Too many kids not learning to read, write and do arithmetic? There’s an app for that — it’s called parental involvement and parental choice in education.

Too many senseless earmarks? There’s an app for that — it’s called the real appropriations process. As a bonus, that word even starts with “app.”

Medicare fraud, Social Security and wasteful defense spending eating the United States out of house and home? There’s an app for that — it’s called “everything’s on the table for savings.”

Politicians talking too much and doing too little to cut wasteful spending? That app is called citizen accountability. Another app for that is called an election.

Am I being overly simplistic? Sure. But folks, the citizens of this country sit around kitchen tables each and every day and figure out how to balance their budgets and cut wasteful spending. They may eat ground beef instead of filet, or rent a DVD every once in awhile instead of going to a movie and drinking swimming pool-size sodas that cost a week’s salary. If you get popcorn with it, that’s two weeks’ salary.

Bottom line, citizens know something politicians still need to learn: It’s hard to be austere, but it’s often the right — and necessary — thing to do. And here’s another “a” word: accountability.

Being accountable is a two-way street. Elected officials must be accountable to the electorate, who sent a clear message in November that the overspending has to stop. And the citizens must be accountable by recognizing that their job was not over when they cast their ballot. Letters count. Talking to your elected officials — offering ideas and input, support and criticism, as deserved — is a critical part of our democracy.

As citizens of this great nation, we need to make sure these public servants keep their promise to cut the federal budget. It’s time. Since 1969, the federal government has run a deficit every year, with a brief exception between 1998 and 2001.

That chronic overspending has resulted in a cumulative debt of $14 trillion, roughly twice what it was 10 years ago, or about $45,000 of debt for every man, woman and child in America. And without reform, without making difficult choices, the problem just gets worse from here.

The path is simply unsustainable, or atrocious, to use another “a” word.

Still, many say you can’t reduce the size of government in a time of economic peril. Tax increases are a potentially attractive solution — if the goal is simply to “balance” the budget. But the goal must also be to ensure a sustainable level of government spending so the economy — and any chance of solid growth — isn’t smothered by heavy tax burdens.

A poll by Public Opinion Strategies shows Americans know this intuitively. Seventy-two percent of likely voters said raising taxes (Washington’s usual answer to deficits) would do more harm to the economy than cutting spending. Only a quarter said cutting government spending would do more harm.

So, if you want to be austere, there is an app for that: common sense and accountability.

Happy New Year, everyone.

J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com), chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group, is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.

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