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Ed cetera

Join the informed, opinionated journalists of The Times' editorial staff in lively discussions at our blog Ed Cetera.

February 18, 2010 at 5:21 PM

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Civil Disagreement: Obama's Deficit Commission

Posted by Lynne Varner

Civil disagreements, with Lynne Varner and Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times editorial board, is a feature of the Ed Cetera blog. Here Lynne and Bruce discuss President Barack Obama's new deficit commission and its potential to reshape debates on deficit spending.



Lynne Varner, left, and Bruce Ramsey

Lynne Varner: Bruce, please come down to my office and pinch me so I can be sure I didn't dream up the news that the president has created a taskforce to tackle America's addiction to deficit spendng.

The 18-member panel is starting out with all the right things, including a high-falutin name, The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and prominent co-chairs, GOP Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Democratic White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles.

They have their work cut out for them. The federal debt is projected next year to exceed $14 trillion. That's about $47,000 for every U.S. resident. The panel is expected to come up with a deficit reduction plan by Dec. 1. But the part of this commission's charge I like best is their promise to recalibrate American expectations around money and social benefits. For example, one suggestion is to raise the age people can collect Social Security and slow the growth of those benefits. Another is raising taxes on a larger portion of the populace, those making under $200,000. It will be interesting to see what this group comes up with.

Bruce Ramsey: Lynne, I'm all for reducing the deficit. I really am. But I have learned to be cynical about it. It was supposed to be at the absolute heart of the Republican Party, and in eight years George W. Bush was never able to run a surplus. The War or Terra came first, and all the other stuff of government that the Republicans didn't cut. My Democratic colleagues were reminding me, the house tightwad, of this for years. Now comes Obama. He has been there a year, and to look at the federal government's financial statement, you'd think that we were in World War III. The federal government is a veritable Vesuvius of spending. And now he appoints a commission. At the same time the House and Senate are talking about another "stimulus" bill, and whether it should be more or less than $100 billion.

I've been through too many presidents who are really, really serious about balancing the budget in seven years, or reducing it by half in five years. They can never do it now. What they can do is appoint a commission, which makes it look like they're doing it when they're really not.

As for the ideas mentioned: sure, some of them make sense. I'm a small-government guy, so I like spending cuts lots more than tax increases. If we keep the present Social Security system, it has to be balanced. And the best ways to do that are to allow the tax cap to rise faster and make the benefits formula less generous over time. I am not so high on raising the retirement age. It might work for desk jockeys like you and me, but blue collar workers are done by 67, and many of them well before that. You can't expect an ironworker, a sheet metal worker, a pipefitter, etc, to work to age 70 in order to get full benefits. Anyway, if we're going to cut payments from the government, let's cut them to people who don't work, not to people who worked a lifetime.

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