March 10, 2010

COMMENTARYPoliticians need cover to be able to tell the truth

— The time has come for us to have a serious, adult conversation about the financial future of our country.

Unfortunately, we are a nation of babies, so we will just resort to name-calling instead.

That is the picture painted by a panel of level-headed think-tank policy wonks, (how's that for name calling?) visiting Maine this August to generate interest in the issue that should be at the center of our national dialog -- entitlement reform.

On a day like Tuesday, when the 10-year federal deficit was projected to be $9 trillion, you would think that the nonpartisan Concord Coalition's ''Fiscal Wake-Up Tour'' wouldn't have much trouble grabbing our attention. But it's always hard to put numbers in context when they are that big.

Now, $9 trillion may sound like a lot of money, but in economic terms, it actually is a whole lot of money.

Carrying that much debt is going to put us at the mercy of foreign lenders. It will also suck money out of the rest of the economy through significantly higher taxes or cause us to drastically lower our expectations for what government can provide.

The sunny message from the coalition's panel is that it will probably take some combination of higher taxes and lower expectations to gain control, and the sooner we start taking our medicine the better.

America will have to enter a period of ''very deep fiscal retrenchment'' to see the other side of this.

''We have an unsustainable budget,'' said Robert Bixby, Concord Coalition's executive director. ''This is not cyclical. We are not going to grow out of it.''

Which is not the kind of thing that will get a politician elected, and that is sort of the point of the tour.

Despite the large number of very large numbers in the group's presentation, it isn't a math problem.

Despite the graphs and charts that show spending and tax revenue projections in comparison with projected growth in GDP, it's not an economics problem.

It is a political problem that has been with us for a generation and won't go away.

Politicians know the attack lines so well they use the other side's playbook pre-emptively.

Before the conversation begins, Democrats say tax increases are off the table and Republicans say that no cuts to services should ever be considered. The fact is that both should be part of the discussion, and both sides know it.

The federal debt issue became a powerful political force in 1992. Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, a Concord Coalition founder, made it the main issue of his race for the Democratic nomination for the presidency that year, and Texas billionaire Ross Perot made it the only issue in his, when he ran as an independent.

In the years that followed, concerns about the deficit led to some measures of fiscal discipline from the Clinton White House and Congress, and the deficit itself disappeared. By 2000, the federal budget was running a surplus and we moved onto other priorities.

But, the grown-ups on the Wake-up panel warn, don't expect that to happen again.

For one thing, there was the peace dividend at the end of the Cold War, which allowed us to cut back military spending. Then there was the dot-com bubble, which fueled a historic bull market on Wall Street.

Mired in at least two wars and with Wall Street looking like more of a liability than a savior, we can't count on a repeat of history. Instead, we will have to get people in our political system to do things that, in the past, have gotten people just like them killed politically.

But the Wake-up crew is providing the political cover. Ranging from the Progressive Policy Institute's Will Marshall to the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler they represent, as Marshall quipped, the political spectrum, from the center-left to the center-right. What they offer is a small measure of safety for politicians who are brave enough to poke their heads out.

The panel members have tactical disagreements but at least they all agree on what the problem is. Going around the country, they let local politicians host forums -- it was Susan Collins on Tuesday -- where the panel interacts with voters. Hopefully the member of Congress sees that you can have these conversations without going up in flames.

The goal is to create a commission that would bring a take-it-or-leave-it proposal to the Congress, much like the Base Closure and Realignment Commission did to cut military spending. That gave every member of Congress the opportunity to fight like the devil for the people back home, and ultimately vote to close their base anyway, without paying a big political price.

That may work here, but it would require a recognition that we are not grown up enough to discuss serious policy matters and need to create an undemocratic process to force us to do the right thing.

As long as people jump on every ''death-panel'' ghost story, however, that may just be the case.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be reached at 791-6481, or at:

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)