Long-time deficit- and debt-hawks like me always assume we will have our hearts broken, and despite the creation of a new bipartisan deficity reduction panel and despite the brilliant choice of former Sen. Alan Simpson as co-chair, it’s safest to assume that more heartbreak and intergenerational pillaging is ahead.
The national government is and has been, almost without interruption for 50 years or so, on an unsustainable fiscal course that threatens future generations with an economy-crushing mountain of debt. The basic problem has been in place almost since the baby-boomers were born.
(The centrality of the sheer size of the boomer generation to the problem is often overstated. We boomers will pass from the scene eventually. But the increases in life expectancy are not going away. This is, of course, mostly good news. But its impact on the ratio between workers and retirees, and on the long-term cost of the big entitlement programs, is here to stay and to grow.)
Yes, I know about the military budget, too. I’m such a dove that I go out of my way to call it “military” spending, rather than “defense.” Think about it. The Defense Department was the Department of War for most of U.S. history until some post-World War II marketing geniuses decided to reframe what that was about. Every time we call it the defense budget, we are engaging a bit of Orwellian self-brainwashing. But liberals are kidding themselves if they think military spending is as big a cause of the unsustainable fiscal picture as the entitlement programs.
So, as you have heard, after the Repubs shamefully refused to go along with a deficit-reduction panel that would have had real teeth, President Obama has decided to do what he could do by executive order and has named a new panel to recommend a long-term strategy of deficit and debt reduction. Because Congress didn’t agree in advance to an up-or-down vote on the panel’s ultimate report, Congress will be relatively free to ignore the panel’s ultimate recommendations.
But the best news was that Pres. Obama chose as the Repub co-chair of the panel former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson. Simpson was once considered a mainstream conservative Republican, chosen by his fellow Repubs as their whip. He is a fiscal conservative from back when fiscal conservatism meant what it was supposed to mean — someone who was serious about balancing the budget. (That term, in case you haven’t noticed, has also undergone a huge Orwellian rebranding since the Reagan years. It now means someone who pretends to be concerned about the deficit but constantly advocates tax cuts that will make the deficit higher.)
Last night, fresh from the announcement of the commission’s creation, Simpson and his Dem co-chair, former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, sat down with Judy Woodriff on the estimable “PBS NewsHour.” I’ll post the video below.
From the first time the camera hit Simpson, I had the feeling that adult supervision had arrived. Simpson is 79 and, to tell you the truth, he looks older. He left the Senate voluntarily in 1996 and this is not the first time he has interrupted his retirement to do one of these bipartisan no-bull deals. (And not on easy subjects. He was on the Iraq Study Group and he is a co-chair of the bipartisan Americans for Campaign Reform.)
From his Senate days, I remember him as being humorous, in a Bob Dole way, making fun of himself and everyone else and of the b.s. that imbues Washington. And in the interview last night, he announced that humor would be the toool with which he would deal with the attacks to come. But they will come, because Simpson and Bowles are as serious as two heart attacks about what it will take to deal with the deficit/debt issue. Namely: EVERYTHING.
They both said it. Everything that will reduce the deficit has to be on the table. Entitlement cuts. Tax increases. Even tax increases that hit the middle class. And every single category of spending. As Bowles said, the effort will fail if anything — anything — is ruled off the table.
For those who are won’t watch the video, here are a few of Simpson’s wisecracks:
He called the assignment “a suicide mission.” But cracked that he was taking Bowles down with him. When Woodruff asked him what about the Republican dogma that tax cuts are actually a form of deficit reduction since (on Planet Mars) they pay for themselves. Simpson: “I’m not smoking that same pipe any more.”
He predicted that “Rushbabe will be after me day and night.”
He called the long-term future fiscal problem “an engine coming down the track with no brakes.” But if it isn’t addressed “this country is going to the bow-wos.” His most juvenile crack (but I’m inclined to be forgiving) was to say of those who are going to use cheap shots and sound bites to derail this serious work: “they’ve b.o., heartburn and gas.”
And lastly, my favorite (and bear in mind that Simpson used to chair one of the Social Security committees in the Senate): “There’s only two ways you can go with Social Security. You can raise the payroll tax or you can cut benefits or you can use affluence testing [me: that’s sorta three ways, but none of them are privatization]. Everything else is just B.S. If people are really ingesting B.S. all day long, their grandchildren will be picking grits with the chickens.”
Here’s the video. The whole thing is 12 minutes long. The interview kicks in about 2:30.