Miami hosted two well-respected economic experts — Alice Rivlin, Brookings fellow and former vice chair of the Federal Reserve Board and David Walker, candidate for Connecticut governor and former U.S. comptroller general — to discuss a low-profile political issue with an inflammatory spin: “Is the national debt the new road the serfdom?”
Though the mission of the Janus Forum is to “discuss opposing views freely and passionately,” the nearly 90 minute discussion moderated by junior Jacob Bruggeman in Wilks Theater was mostly an agreement: The national debt is too big, and we should focus on its reduction. Rivlin and Walker even agreed on the causes of the skyrocketing debt and how we should go about shrinking it.
Where Rivlin and Walker disagreed, albeit modestly, was how big of a problem the national debt actually is.
“The title is rather provocative, but not a good one,” Rivlin said, “because it suggests that this is some apocalyptic problem, that the sky is falling, that some terrible thing is about to happen to our nation, and I don’t think the national debt is in that category. It is a manageable challenge. I’m not saying we don’t have to worry about the rising debt. We do, it’s very important. But I think it’s one of the easier challenges facing the United States at the moment.”
Walker, another proponent of reducing the debt, countered with a stronger rebuke of what he considers runaway expenditures of the U.S. government.
“To me, this is not an economic issue, this is not just a fiscal issue, this is an ethical and a moral issue,” Walker said. “What’s happening is that we’re on an…unsustainable path, we are mortgaging the future of our children, our grandchildren and the unborn, and in many cases they don’t have a say in these decisions, and yet they’re going to pay the price, they’re going to bear the burden, if we don’t end up making changes.”
Rivlin and Walker went on to discuss how they see a meaningful path to reform: Reducing spending and increasing revenue to decrease the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio. Spending reductions could come in the forms of Medicare, Social Security and entitlement reform, Walker said, but he doesn’t see a route to spending cuts in today’s political system.
“We have political dysfunction in Washington,” Walker said. “We have gridlock in Washington. We have excessive partisanship, we have a great ideological divide, and you can’t run a country by committee. And Congress is a committee. And nobody’s in charge of the committee. The biggest deficit I think we have is a leadership deficit. And that’s not a partisan statement, it’s not a personal statement. This is something that the CEO — whether it’s the president, the governor, the mayor — they have a disproportionate opportunity to lead on this, to go directly to the people, to tell them the truth, to talk about the tough choices and the engage the people to mobilize to put pressure on the politicians to do something sooner rather than later, and to reduce the influence of a variety of interest groups that would rather keep the way things are, for a variety of reasons.”