Work around government long enough and you develop a healthy skepticism when a president or governor forms a special task force or commission to tackle a major public policy issue. It’s almost always done purely for political and theatrical reasons. Ultimately, behind the talk about bi-partisanship and cooperation sits an army of strategists and public relations professionals bending over backwards to find a “solution” that fits the political goals of the powers-that-be and the interests that put them in charge, regardless of the impact on the common good. One local legislator in my home state grew so tired of hearing the term “stakeholder” that he began asking “what about the people left holding the bag?”
Of far greater interest to me than its actual work product are the unofficial comments from members of Obama’s “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.” It’s a noble-sounding and sanitary name for a group formed to deal with the most ominous threat facing the Republic: national debt.
The commission’s co-chair, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyoming) answered 10 questions from the Council of State Governments about his work and the looming debate over (yet again) raising the national debt limit. Simpson’s straightforward, sobering perspective is worth a read. A tidbit:
Q: What do you think will happen if something isn’t done?
“The do-nothing will leave their children and grandchildren picking grit with the chickens in 40 years, 50 years, without question. Everybody knows this. Look at the trustees report. They’re unanimous telling us what is happening with Social Security. Look at disability insurance. It’ll be gone in eight years because everybody has learned how to get at that one too.
But the debt limit extension will be the moment of truth. If they don’t do something significant at the end of this year the creditors, who really might hope we go down in flames anyway, some of them, are just going to say I want my money. At that point, the slippage starts, the interest rates go up. Who gets hit the worst? The little guy that everybody always talks about.
I’ll take Simpson’s western frankness over the dribble from so many economics “experts” any day. One of my favorite jokes goes something like “He’s the economist who predicted seven of the last three recessions.” The lowpoint for the Nobel Prize wasn’t, as some claim, in its presentation to Al Gore or Barack Obama, but rather Paul Krugman—a man frighteningly adept at keeping a straight face while telling Americans that not only is debt a “phantom menace,” but that we ought to ramp up the pace of public sector spending. Like Cuba and Jordan on the UN Human Rights Council, it’s just plain mind boggling.
In a very real sense, the issue is far simpler than the central planners at Goldman Sachs or the U.S. Department of the Treasury want to discuss publicly, so they throw out lots of graphs, charts, jargony phrases like “debt-to-GDP ratio,” and subtly build up the public perception that our current course is not fraught with peril. At the very least, they feed a paralyzing confusion that prevents angst from significantly impacting elections or the bottom line, and a confused populace is easily tamed. The food warehouses are overflowing, the kids anesthetized with video games and text messages, and the tube offers countless channels for sports, shopping, “reality” tv, and experts like Paul Krugman smilingly reassure us that debt is not a problem. All is well.
One more special government commission has come and gone, its work product has been formatted, edited, branded, neatly bound, shelved, and ultimately disregarded because its recommendations were deemed too painful or political suicide. But the inescapable conclusion is frightening in its clarity: a nation, like an individual, can only spend beyond its means for so long. Sometimes the truth is that simple. Sen. Alan Simpson understands the problem, and his candor is refreshing.
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