I have been writing this “Purple Nation” column for a long time, waiting for the “purple moment” when President Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would agree on an important position on the budget and deficits. Little did I know that when it finally happened, I would be disappointed, to say the least.
“We don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt,” President Obama told ABC “Good Morning America” host George Stephanopoulos, in an interview that aired March 13. “In fact, for the next 10 years it’s gonna be in a sustainable place.”
Then a day or so later, Boehner said he agreed with the president!
Instead of cheering this as a magic purple moment, I could only think of this metaphor, which I believe is apt: There’s a ticking time bomb in your living room, you know the bomb will certainly explode in 10-15 years, and you choose only to reassure your family, “There is no ‘immediate’ danger.”
That is pretty much the situation we face today. Here are a few scary facts:
According to a CNN report, the nonpartisan and highly respected Congressional Budget Office projects the national debt will continue to rise over the next 10 years by a total of $7 trillion. Recently, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles pointed out that even if we were to accept the president’s budget proposals, and experienced an optimistic rate of growth over the next 10 years, the national debt would still be above 73 percent of gross domestic product by 2023 — a danger zone for most economists. And, they add, this scenario “leaves no margin of error if the economy grows slower, no wiggle room in case politicians are fiscally irresponsible in the future [shocking thought!], and no flexibility in case of a war, recession or natural disaster.”
According to Simpson-Bowles, at the current rate of spending and revenues, there will be sufficient tax revenues to be able to finance only interest payments on the debt, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Every other federal activity — from national defense to homeland security to transportation and energy — will have to be paid for with more borrowed money. Interest on the national debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion by 2020.
Talk about ticking time bombs: given that the baby boomer generation is already coming of age at 65 and older, if we do nothing to restructure the Social Security, there will be no money at all left in the trust fund 25 years from now. That means an immediate cut in benefits of more than 20 percent, affecting everyone today who is 40 years old, and for those who are younger, the cutbacks grow more and more severe.
Add to that the increasing cost of Medicare substantially above the rate of growth in projected revenues for the next 10 years, causing further combustion power to the ticking time bomb. Simpson reminds us that ten thousand Americans each day are turning 65 and that life expectancy is 78.1 years today, and in five years will be 80. “This is madness,” he says. “Who is kidding who? This will eat a hole through America.”
I have written in this space often that the run-up of the national debt in proposals made by the president and leaders of both political parties is the moral equivalent of the following: If you travel around the world, use credit cards to pay for all your airfares, hotels and fancy restaurants, return home after the trip and dump all the credit card receipts on your children’s laps and tell them to pay, that is downright wrong. And I say that the word immoral is the right word.
Why don’t the president and Boehner also agree that assuring today’s generation that there’s no “immediate” deficit crisis, while dumping our credit card bills on our children’s and grandchildren’s laps in the next 10-15 years, is wrong — plain immoral?
And why don’t they both announce support for passage of all the Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendations, supported by a bipartisan vote of more than 60 percent, including liberal Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and conservative Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Mike Crapo (Idaho)?
That would be the right thing to do, the moral thing to do, the purple thing to do.
Davis, a Washington attorney and principal in the firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, specializing in legal crisis management and dispute resolution, served as President Clinton’s special counsel from 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board from 2006-07. He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is the author of the book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life, that was published by Simon & Schuster on March 5, 2013.