He's Serious, All Right, But Not About the Deficit

Paul Greenberg

4/27/2011 2:47:00 PM - Paul Greenberg

The elephant in the room is getting harder and harder to ignore. It's not just bigger than ever, but threatens to go on a rampage that could lay waste everything around it. This particular elephant has a name: the national debt.

The neighbors who have been propping it up -- by buying the government's bonds -- can't help but notice how huge it's become, and wonder how safe they'll be once the beast gets completely out of control.

Our creditors around the world have begun to sell America short. They grow less and less confident about this country's ability to ever rein in our deficits. Soon they may demand more interest on the bonds they've been buying -- or even switch from the dollar to some other reserve currency for world trade.

Such a development would only aggravate the vicious cycle that our spendthrift ways have set in motion. More debt means higher interest rates means more inflation means a stagnant economy in which prices rise but the economy declines.

Sound familiar? Think of the Carter Years, which gave us a new word for this whole, demoralizing, debilitating process: stagflation. That specter now haunts the American economy again: Stagflation II.

The full faith and credit of the United States has been a synonym for stability ever since its first secretary of the treasury -- Alexander Hamilton -- insisted on paying off the young republic's bonds to the last penny. But what if this old republic thinks it can just go on taxing and spending and borrowing, as if the day of reckoning could be put off indefinitely?

How many times can the country's debt limit be raised, how many more dollars can be run off the printing presses before foreign investors catch on, and pull the rug out from under us? They've already started to wise up. Which is why all of us agree that it's time to finally set our fiscal house in order. (Well, all of us excepting the usual ideologues who think inflation is the universal remedy for all our economic woes.)

The president says he understands this can't go on. Hard decisions will have to be made. So, like the smooth politician he is, he's called on others to make them. It's the first resort of any leader who'd really rather somebody else did the heavy lifting: Appoint a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to take the heat. This one is called Bowles-Simpson after its two chairmen and, sure enough, it's come up with a whole list of steps so responsible this president isn't about to endorse them:

Cut federal spending by $4 trillion over the next decade by reducing the deficit to 2.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. (It's 10.9 percent this year.) Raise revenue by simplifying the tax code and eliminating loopholes, even people's favorite ones. (Uh oh. What politician would defy the powerful lobbies every loophole in the tax code soon generates?) Raise the retirement age for Social Security and lower its benefits. (Ouch!) Freeze federal workers' pay, as if they were in the private sector and had to accept salary freezes, pay cuts and furloughs. (Yikes!)

Put all of Bowles-Simpson's recommendations together and they add up to a fine start on the country's fiscal problems, which means they could also be the end of any such hope. For it would take political courage, that rarest of commodities in Washington, to adopt the committee's recommendation's intact. No wonder they just sit there gathering dust.

The president appointed the commission, but now acts as if that were quite enough. His specialty is preaching, not practice. A great one for substituting words for action, he proposes a $3.7 trillion budget for next year that substitutes platitudes for any real economies. His budget doesn't lay a finger on Medicaid or Social Security. And he's leery of messing with Medicare, too.

This president's revenue projections seem to have been put together by that well-known Washington hostess, Rosy Scenario. While he admits current policies are unsustainable, he's still trying to sustain them. The course he's adopted might be summed up as Unsteady As She Goes. In short, his is not a serious plan. Because he's not a serious man. No, that's not fair. The president is serious, just not about the deficit. What he's serious about is running for re-election.

The GOP's man on the budget is serious indeed. His name is Paul Ryan. In one of his more honest moments, Barack Obama said Mr. Ryan's approach deserved to be taken seriously. But now the president is running for re-election and can't afford that kind of candor.

Mr. Ryan is willing to risk that most politically perilous of tasks: talking sense to the American people. About no less sensitive a subject than the way we throw money around. A drunken sailor would look like a skinflint in Washington, but Paul Ryan would cut government spending to below 20 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product. He would raise revenue by simplifying the tax code so it applied to more earners but cut tax rates. (The top bracket for businesses and households would fall to 25 percent from the current 35 percent.) He would reform Medicare by letting people choose their own insurers, just as they do now through Medicare Advantage, while subsidizing coverage for the poorest and sickest. He would turn Medicaid into block grants for the states, so each could economize in its own way. And so responsibly on. The only thing his plan lacks is any chance of being adopted by this administration. Or maybe the country. Who wants to stop believing in a free lunch?

The particulars of Paul Ryan's plan can be debated -- which of his reforms would prove practical, which wouldn't -- but this much is undebatable: It's a serious proposal, and a courageous one in a climate in which other politicians would rather just hope for the best. If the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard awarded its Profile in Courage Award on the basis of courage rather than political correctness, it would waste no time giving this year's award to Congressman Ryan.

His plan may be politically foolhardy, but it is fiscally responsible. So the president is now attacking its author as the kind of hard-hearted Republican (or do we repeat ourselves?) who'd throw Grandma out into the snow, followed by any small children around at the time.

Unfortunately for the president, just as he was opening his re-election campaign in a coast-to-coast blitz of speechifying, those spoilsports at Standard & Poor's, the bond-rating agency, warned that the country's AAA credit rating was in jeopardy. "We believe there is at least a one-in-three likelihood that we could lower our long-term rating on the U.S. within two years," said S&P's report. It changed its outlook for government securities from "stable" to "negative." Reading the report was like getting a letter from a collection agency just as you're about to throw another big party.

The administration responded by sending out spokespersons in all televised directions to blow off S&P's warnings. But there was something hollow about all those statements; they brought to mind CEO Dick Fuld's assurances that all was well at Lehman Brothers just before it went under.

This president has a standard answer for any and all who point out the dangers to the economy posed by a national debt that has grown from huge to gargantuan on his watch: It's all George W. Bush's fault.

But the analysts at S&P, like a growing number of Americans, aren't buying it. To quote S&P's dispassionate prose, or rather dispassionate numbers, in "2003-2008, the U.S.'s general government deficit fluctuated between 2 percent and 3 percent of GDP. Already noticeably larger than most AAA rated sovereigns, it ballooned to more than 11 percent in 2009 and has yet to recover."

It's hard to argue with figures like that, but the Democrats will. There's no end to the fun to be had with numbers, and any partisan can quote them selectively. What matters just now isn't so much who's to blame for this mess but how we're going to get out of it.