First, for anyone out there who does not know exactly what this is about, the Simpson-Bowles Commission was appointed by President Obama to come up with a comprehensive program to significantly reduce America’s national debt. The resultant proposal should trim about four trillion dollars from that staggering number. That is a big cut, but it will still leave us with a big debt, even if the proposal does become law.
Before going any further, let us pause a moment to consider the idea of presidential commissions in general. Well, in general, a group of distinguished people make an in-depth study of a problem, uncover a number of insights that are often embarrassing to the administration in power, after which, their results are generally shunted aside forever. The Nixon administration, for all its productive legislation (and, yes, there was some), was particularly notorious for gathering “blue-ribbon” commissions, then, after having wasted a considerable amount of our money, ignoring or even denigrating those commissions’ findings.
Still, even if the history of presidential commissions is shaky at best, we may have some reason to believe this one will have some teeth. On the other hand, its proposals are so earthshaking, we may be just as likely to believe this commission will merely have some gums.
The reason for believing that the Simpson-Bowles Commission might make headway is that its formation came as a result of a very clear mandate in response to a very real problem. Our national debt is far too high, with projections to climb even higher. This has to stop. I almost said “this simply has to stop,” but that is just the very adverb I need to avoid. There is not going to be anything simple about this process, if it is successfully carried out.
The Simpson-Bowles report on the subject is very complex and multi-faceted. There is not room here to list every single idea, without the reader’s eyes glazing over from way too much input. Instead, let us look at some of the highlights, all of which are likely to cause storms of protest from one sector or another.
Social Security Reform
We need to face the fact that somebody is going to have to step on that dreaded “third rail” and address the vexing issue of how to control the spiraling costs of this enormous program, particularly as the recipient pool is on the verge of major expansion, owing to the post-World War II baby boom.
The Simpson-Bowles Commission recommended that eligibility ages be increased, over a gradual period of time, so that, by 2075, the age of eligibility for full benefits would be 69. That does seem like a tough pill to swallow, but, as I hope I have indicated here already, there are not a lot of easy pills in this economic prescription. If such a thing comes to pass, I would hope there would be some device put in place to liberalize (not eliminate, but liberalize) the scrutiny of older people’s disability claims. After all, they are the ones who are most likely to have a legitimate medical reason why they cannot work any longer.
Then too, a number of people die in their 60s, particularly between the ages of 65 and 69, which means there will be even more people who paid into the system and got nothing back. Of course that is tragic, not because those people were “gypped” by the system, but because their lives ended before their time. Let us please remember, Social Security is not some elaborate casino game, where you do or do not beat the “house.” Social Security is a program to provide some sort of financial independence for those who are too old to earn a living, but who still have the rest of their lives to cope with. It sounds cruel, but it is so: if you are dead you do not need Social Security or any other government program. If I die tomorrow, I will have put in way more than I took out. That will be the least of my worries.
Other key changes involve reducing the rate of the COLA calculation and expanding the income ceiling subject to Social Security Withholding. On the other hand, the commission recommended raising the minimum benefit a bit and allowing an additional increase for the very aged, many of whom may have outlived their savings. As a Social Security recipient-and one who, as my fellow geriatrics know, has not received one red cent by way of a COLA increase, last year or next-I can only wince at the thought of a reduced COLA allowance, but we all need to make sacrifices if we are to be serious about this debt thing. On the whole, the recommended changes will most severely impact the wealthy, while they will give many people of modest means a bit of a break.
This is a real rat’s nest of suggestions, but some of the core features include these ideas. The proposal would increase the gasoline tax by 15 ¢ a gallon. What, like gas prices aren’t high enough already? The sad fact of the matter is that, even with our supposedly crumbling infrastructure, the cost of the maintenance we do has far outstripped the revenue the present gas tax generates. The shortfall eventually gets added to our national debt.
A number of cherished and seemingly-legitimate deductions would fall by the wayside, in favor of a tax system that, while still somewhat graduated, will be greatly simplified, yet produce more revenue. The biggest outcry will almost certainly be against disallowing the mortgage interest deduction, and-no argument here-that is not an easy one to let go of. Consider for a moment, though. Renters to not get the luxury of that generous deduction; only homeowners. Some might say the deduction is necessary to encourage home-ownership, as if anybody would rather pay rent than own.
There is one thing about the commission’s tax recommendations I find very troubling, though. They seem to advocate limiting our government to collecting taxes only on income made within the United States. What, now we want to generally subsidize outsourcing? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine what those people were thinking.
The easiest thing for the commission members to suggest was, no more earmarks. That almost certainly does not mean a complete end to discretionary spending by the federal government, but it would end the shameful practice of slipping huge outlays into a given bill, without debate, notice or accountability. On one hand, there is not so much wasteful spending that the elimination of it all will end our debt troubles, but it is a strong step in the right direction.
There almost certainly is some of that in our government. There is some in every government of the face of the Earth. I remember reading in an excellent book called Up the Organization, the British, during the Napoleonic Wars, established a sinecure for a lookout to peer out from the white cliffs of Dover and ring a bell when Bonaparte launched his invasion. The post was abolished, as I recall, in 1950. Our government needs to take a good hard squint to see if we have any bell-ringers on the payroll, patiently waiting for Boney.
The Simpson-Bowles Commission goes on to make a number of other difficult recommendations, involving such important items as defense spending and Medicare, none of them pleasant to accept.
Now, here is where the editorial part of the essay comes in. What should we as a nation, through our leaders, do about this thorough, but disturbing, report? To be sure, there may be a few tweaks needed (such as that outsourcing support thing) to make it a more workable bill, but we need to keep out eyes on the prize.
Do we want our national debt reduced or don’t we? There it is. To my friends on the left I say, yes, the debt is a huge problem that we cannot ignore. We will all have to live under a less generous government if we expect to get a handle on it, and the matter is not up for debate: a handle must be gotten.
To my friends on the right (and I do have a good many, believe it or not), I would point out that we are not going to fix the debt problem by cutting your taxes. DUHHH! We are in debt. We owe people money, capishe?
By the same token, merely eliminating lower-class welfare, while keeping intact upper-middle-class and upper-class welfare (which dwarfs that first kind, but does not suffer the stigma of actually being referred to as “welfare”), is not going get the job done either. All you tea-partiers out there, it’s time to get off the pot and tell us, which do you want, really low taxes or a lot less national debt? Wake up and snort the java, folks, YOU CAN’T HAVE BOTH!
Of course, our distinguished members of Congress are scared witless about the Simpson-Bowles report. Support of any one of its controversial ideas could let their opponents have a field day in 2012. Here’s an idea, Mr. President, which actually requires you to get involved in the process. Pledge to any Republican who supports the commission’s recommendations-by which I mean voting support, not just lip service-you will not campaign on behalf of that person’s Democratic opponent. Pledge to any Democrat who does likewise, you will campaign vigorously for that person’s re-election. Then, since you are a Democrat and the president, promise that you will hurt any obstreperous Democrat real bad. It’s not particularly cool or laid back, but, these are not cool or laid back times. These are get-to-work and get-it-done times, as we all should know by now.