Does it really take Hercules to fix the federal budget deficit?

When Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles- the co-chairs of White House budget commission- released their ideas for cutting the federal budget deficit, they included something to upset nearly everyone. Getting their proposals through Congress would require "Herculean efforts," according to one observer quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

View of Hercules temple ruins
View of Hercules temple ruins, Agrigento, Sicily. Created by Desprez and De Longueuil, published on Voyage Pittoresque de Naples et de Sicilie, by J. C. R. de Saint Non, Impr. de Clousier, Paris, 1786

That got us thinking about Hercules and the budget. All we’re talking about is how to ensure the government takes in enough money to cover what it spends. Is tackling the country’s massive deficits and fearsome debt really a “Herculean” effort?

If you’ve forgotten the details, this is what happened to Hercules. The goddess Hera bewitched him, and in a fit of insanity, he murdered his family (when it comes to familial bloodshed, the ancient Greeks top even HBO). As punishment-and to get back into the good graces of the Olympian powers that be of the time—Hercules had to complete 12 nearly impossible “labors.”

After we brushed up on Hercules and the mythical beasts he fought, we noticed a few points of comparison—at least enough to have some fun with (Bear with us, but groaning is allowed).

First off, Hercules had 12 years to complete his labors, not that much time given what he was up against. The proposals being considered by the budget commission give the country considerably longer. Most of the spending cuts and tax increases suggested by the co-chairs, for example, would be phased in gradually, bringing the budget into balance along about 2037, some 26 years from now. Even so, a Greek chorus of bloggers and politicians has been in full outrage mode.

Second, Hercules did get help from the gods. Right now, the only gods we have on our side are the foreign investors who lend us money and allow us to run deficits by buying U.S. Treasury bonds. The bond-buying gods have been kinder to us than to the modern Greeks who had to get emergency bailout money from the European Community to avoid a sovereign debt crisis. International bond traders can turn on you in a flash, just like the Greek gods.

There are also some parallels with the mythical beasts Hercules battled (at least if you allow us to stretch a few points). One of Hercules’ labors was capturing the Ceryneian Hind (a magical deer, basically). The trick was that Hercules needed to get hold of the hind without hurting it, because it was sacred to the goddess Diana. This is exactly what most American would like to see happen with Social Security. They want to find a way to get its finances under control without hurting it. As classics majors know, Hercules faced some major complications capturing the Hind, but capture it he did. The Hind then returned to the forest presumably quite happy and unharmed.

Hercules also had to clean out the stables of King Augeus, a man with more cattle, sheep, goats and horses than anyone else in Greece. Given the mess involved in this particular task, we won’t take the analogy too far. Still, many Americans think we’ll have to clean up Washington to have any hope of curtailing deficit spending. There are lobbyists on behalf of nearly every tax break, loophole, agency and program—they all benefit someone. It’s one reason we’ve had deficits for 31 out the past 35 years. Hercules had to divert two rivers to clean out the Augean stables. Washington may need a transformation just as strong.

Then there was the many-headed Hydra. Not only did it have nine gruesome heads, it sprouted new ones every time Hercules managed to lop one off. Plus, one of the heads was considered immortal—it couldn’t be killed at all. For a lot of people, the federal government itself seems like a manyheaded beast, continually spawning new programs and regulations despite repeated calls to streamline it and keep it small. Defense spending has some Hydra-like qualities. There are weapons development programs that seem immortal even when the military itself doesn’t want them. Or take the tax code. Running to more than 67,000 pages already, the code still sprouts new complications and explanations every year. And it does have that immortal head known as the home mortgage deduction. Hercules had to slash away at the Hydra for quite a while before killing it, and he needed help to get the job done. But he kept hacking away, and eventually the beast was overcome.

We’ll leave the other labors for you to ponder. Our main point is this. Attacking the budget is difficult and not for the faint of heart. On the other hand, our budget problems aren’t created by the gods. We caused them, and we can fix them. We don’t have to go to hell and back (another one of Hercules’ labors) to do it. We just need to set priorities and decide what we’re really willing to pay for. With just a trace of Hercules’ daring, it is a task we should be able to pull off.

Author: N .Ibanez, Business Revew USA