Erskine Bowles is a little like John Parke, if legend is true. Both warned of impending disaster, only to be ignored. In Parke’s case, it led to 2,209 deaths. In Bowles’, it could lead to the dwindling of a great nation.
On May 31, 1889, heavy rain poured on western Pennsylvania, and a dam holding back Lake Conemaugh threatened to collapse. Parke, an engineer, rushed on horseback to the telegraph office in the town of South Fork to alert area residents. The story goes that, after years of false alarms about the dam breaking, Johnstown residents disregarded Parke’s warnings. Hours later, 20 million tons of water demolished the town.
Today, Bowles can relate. A Charlotte resident and former co-chairman of a presidential commission on the deficit, Bowles persists in sounding the alarm that America’s fiscal dam is about to burst. Congress and President Obama ignore him, even as 20 million tons of red ink barrel toward them, and us.
Undeterred, Bowles took his message last week to American University and the students graduating from its School of Public Affairs. His commencement speech was not one that shares sage advice as students enter the big, real world. It was a call to arms against an ominous threat, but given these students’ utter helplessness in doing anything about it, it was terrifying. You may have heard it before, but we all need to hear it again.
A treatable cancer
“This generation faces the most predictable economic crisis in history,” Bowles told the graduates. “Fortunately for us, it’s also the most avoidable. The fiscal path that our nation is on today is simply not sustainable. … These deficits that we have today of over $1 trillion a year, they are like a cancer and over time they are going to destroy our country from within.”
He pointed out that every nickel of government revenue is spent just on entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, and on the debt. We borrow to pay for everything else – wars, homeland security, education, the FBI, highways and so on.
Bowles laid out four major drivers of the nation’s financial problems:
• The spiraling cost of health care, and the aging of Americans who consume it.
• Defense spending, which is higher in the U.S. than in the next 15 biggest countries combined.
• A tax code riddled with loopholes.
• Interest on the debt, which already burns $230 billion a year and could eat up $1 trillion a year by 2020.
These are problems, Bowles correctly pointed out, that we can’t grow our way out of, or tax our way out of, or cut our way out of. That’s why a supermajority of his bipartisan commission, from the conservative Sen. Tom Coburn to the liberal Sen. Dick Durbin, agreed to a plan that cut deficits by $4 trillion with new revenue, entitlement reforms and other spending cuts.
An immovable Congress?
So far, so good on the speech. But this is where Bowles’ remarks lost touch with reality. He urged the students to “force these politicians in both parties to deal with these problems and deal with them now.
“If you all can get these politicians to put partisanship aside and pull together rather than pull apart, the future of this country is very bright. … But I’m equally sure that if we continue to kick the can down the road, duck the tough choices, shirk our responsibilities, that America is well on its way to becoming a second-rate power. Please don’t let this happen.”
Gulp. If President Obama is willing to ignore his own commission, and both parties in Congress dismiss a sound plan from their own colleagues, we better hope we’re not relying on the graduates of American University’s School of Public Affairs to persuade them to save the country.
On the other hand, there’s an important kernel of truth in Bowles’ admonition. The politicians will continue to stall until voters extract a political price from them for doing so. The Obama-Romney campaign, the 2012 congressional elections and the pending expiration of the Bush-Obama tax cuts create an opportunity for American voters of both parties to insist that we get serious about taking our medicine.
Absent that, the ultimate pain will only get worse. You can see the cracks in the dam from here.