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Shut down the government? Seriously?

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. says a government shutdown is a pointless exercise
  • The real issue Americans must confront is a government that lives beyond its means, he says
  • Polls show both parties will be blamed if government shuts down
  • Navarrette: U.S. faces a financial calamity if debt problem can't be solved

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.com contributor, a nationally syndicated columnist and an NPR commentator.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- A shutdown? Seriously?

All the media and the politicians can talk about is the possibility that the federal government could shut down at the end of this week if a budget agreement isn't struck, and who will get the blame if it does.

A poll by the Pew Research Center suggests the parties will share the blame almost evenly. Thirty-nine percent of people would blame Republicans. Thirty-six percent would blame Democrats. Sixteen percent would blame both parties.

I understand the focus on a possible shutdown. It is high drama. But there is plenty of drama in something that isn't talked about nearly enough -- the fact that the country's financial picture just doesn't pencil out and what it will mean to future generations if Congress and the White House don't put politics on hold and tackle a $14.2 trillion federal debt and the crushing cost of entitlements.

You want drama? The United States cannot pay its bills, and the longer we wait to do something about it, the deeper the hole will get and the more difficult it will be to climb out of it. We have a generational war brewing as baby boomers, generation Xers and millennials who are working get stuck with the tab for a federal debt that exceeds $14 trillion and have to plan for a future that might not include Medicare and Social Security, while current retirees are guaranteed benefits. And a financial calamity is almost certainly in the cards, as more and more baby boomers start retiring, unless a deficit-cutting deal is reached.

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Against this backdrop, do you think most Americans are really worried that government will shut down for a few days, a week or even longer?

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No. They're probably more worried that government will stay open and continue to spend money it doesn't have.

Or maybe, on second thought, most Americans don't care about that. Maybe our government is a reflection of our values.

In our own homes, and our own lives, too many of us buy things we don't need with money we don't have, and use credit we can't afford. We don't save anything for a rainy day or retirement. We worship at the altar of immediate gratification, and we kick difficult decisions down the road as far as possible.

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who recognize that they have to live within their means, and those who don't know what the heck that means. Many Americans fall into the second camp. So it's no wonder that many of us don't hold our elected officials accountable for their spending sprees and avoidance of debt. We see such behavior as normal.

Well, no more of that says Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

While Senate Democrats and House Republicans are debating whether to make $33 billion in spending cuts (as Democrats suggest) or $61 billion (as Republicans propose) -- figures that represent less than 2% of federal spending -- the House Budget Committee chairman is proposing as much as $6.2 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years.

Specifics include: cutting $750 billion from Medicaid and more cuts in food stamps and housing assistance, $375 billion from shrinking the federal workforce and $30 billion from eliminating some farm subsidies. Ryan's plan would also replace Medicare with a taxpayer subsidized private insurance plan, but only for those who are under 55 years old. In the end, it would lop $4.4 trillion off the national debt.

The plan is a triple. For a home run, Ryan should have taken on sacred cows like Social Security and defense. He also should have dealt more honestly with the issue of tax cuts.

Ryan wants to lower the amount of taxes paid by the wealthiest Americans by lowering the top tax bracket for corporations and individuals from 35% to 25% while also eliminating some tax loopholes. Yet many Americans are rightly outraged by stories about wealthy corporations -- such as General Electric -- that, according to the New York Times, paid no taxes last year..

Still, Ryan deserves credit for having the courage to put forward a specific and responsible budget proposal with meaningful cuts -- something President Obama and Democrats in Congress haven't done, probably because they'd just as soon leave the slings and arrows to someone else.

That's what passes for leadership in Washington these days, not making progress on tough issues but making your team look good and the other look bad.

You see it in the talk of a government shutdown. Both sides claim not to want it to happen, but neither side is doing much to prevent it. Instead, all their energies are spent in trying to convince voters that they're not to blame for it.

Here's the real reason that professional politicians should do whatever they can to avoid a shutdown: After a few days of living without government, many Americans might just decide they don't really miss it and could live with a lot less of it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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