Jonathan Miller is a former Kentucky state treasurer and a co-founder of No Labels, a political organization of Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Burying your head in the sand. Ignoring the elephant in the room. Lying to the emperor about his lack of new clothes. Pick your metaphor, but there is one issue to which we as Americans must reconcile ourselves: Our country’s debt path threatens us with an economic crisis if we do not take action.
At present our national debt exceeds $16 trillion, a figure that is larger than the size of our entire economy. The last time our country faced a debt burden of this magnitude was during and immediately after World War II. Only this time, our debt is projected to rise indefinitely. But just as the “Greatest Generation” helped put our budget into balance, aiding in the creation of the most competitive economy in the world, now it’s our turn.
Fixing the long-term debt outlook, however, is a tall order. Politicians are loath to do anything to harm the priorities of their favored constituencies, be it spending on transportation or scientific research or maintaining current tax rates and exemptions. Rather than putting everything on the table, elected officials in Washington tend instead to kick the can down the road.
We don’t have the luxury of waiting for a solution. The automatic and nearly across-the-board spending cuts that lawmakers agreed to last summer in an unsuccessful attempt to force a debt deal in the fall – part of a larger set of automatic tax increases and spending cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” – are set to go into effect on Jan. 1. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that careering over the edge of the fiscal cliff would shrink the economy by a 3.9 percent annual rate in the first quarter of 2013 and send the economy into a double-dip recession.
In sum, we need to develop a real solution, and soon. And we need the tenacity to follow through. The size and scope of our national debt threatens to consume all of our public priorities. Indeed, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen labeled the national debt as the single biggest threat to national security. New research from Deloitte has revealed that the country will spend $4.2 trillion over the next decade merely servicing the debt, funds that could be used to invest in infrastructure, or in research and development or be used to keep tax rates low. Already, the fear of the fiscal cliff has caused businesses to slow hiring and investments, and Moody’s, the credit-rating agency, has stated that it will consider downgrading our credit rating if responsible actions to begin bringing down the debt are not taken as part of an effort to avoid the cliff. Our political leadership needs to take action before the debt becomes so burdensome that it severely hampers our country’s ability to compete, maintain our social safety net or create jobs.
However, there is hope. A group of former lawmakers, experts, business leaders, and concerned citizens from across the political spectrum have come together, putting their ideological differences aside, in pursuit of a common-sense plan. This new bipartisan group, called the Campaign to Fix The Debt – chaired nationally by former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles – has already received support from over 180,000 Americans in a petition drive to hold elected officials accountable, demanding that our nation’s fiscal path remains front and center in the public discourse. Of course, generating a solid plan to reduce our national debt – without knee-jerk reactions or extreme measures – is an uphill climb, to say the least. But initiatives like the Campaign to Fix the Debt prove that we do have leaders willing to look at both sides of the ledger – spending and revenue – in order to find a deal.
The first step is to understand the severity of the problem we face, and the second is to insist that our elected officials act responsibly and quickly to enact a solution. Ohioans and Kentuckians are frugal, responsible people and understand the simple concept that expending more resources than you bring in is simply not sustainable.