The Debt Dilemma

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson’s draft plan to reduce the $13 trillion national debt, released on Wednesday, was unequivocal that change was going to be difficult and call for deep sacrifices. We have here what Bernard Williams calls a dilemma.  There is no single formula that is going to get us out of this mess or alleviate us of any sense of regret or loss. Raising taxes isn’t enough nor is cutting programs. Getting the nation’s budget on track will call for some of both.  Many liberals are grumbling about touching social security. The tea partiers disparage raising taxes as “compromise” rather than principle. Each side holds something sacred.  The principle they all fail to grasp is that it is wrong to pass this debt on to our children. In dogmatic politics, on any side, the claim is usually that one’s own side is right and the other is the devil. The debt is just not like that.

I am not saying that the Bowles-Simpson plan is exactly right.  For example, I have concerns about lowering tax rates in exchange for getting rid of loop holes and tax deductions.  But I appreciate that they put something on the table that recognizes that we have a balance of things to consider and weigh:  fixing the pending social security crisis without jeopardizing the welfare of the least well off seniors, increasing tax revenue without hampering the economic recovery, downsizing the defense budget without harming national security.  These are all real dilemmas.  They do not admit of easy solutions.  They call for deliberation and working through, in a psychoanalytic sense, what we need to do, rather than remain in denial.  If we could all, like Bowles and Erskine, acknowledge this then perhaps we could get to the truly hard work of figuring out what to do.

The real problem all along is that we have been negotiating budgets that are palatable to the living without enough thought for those to come.

Edit: Check out Our Fiscal Future for more info — sponsored in party by Public Agenda (one of my favorite orgs).