Following the nationwide premiere of the documentary film, I.O.U.S.A, a
panel discussion of distinguished experts took questions at a town-hall
meeting and from moviegoers online. Cast members David Walker, former
Comptroller General of the United States and current President
of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and Concord Coalition
Executive Director Robert Bixby, are still taking your questions and
answering them online.
Questions & Answers
MATTHEW K., BEL AIR, MD:
Given the unwillingness of our politicians to address this problem
facing our nation, what can the average citizen do to prepare for the
adverse effects to come -- besides buying gold, a gun, and ammo??
DAVE WALKER:Matthew, individuals need to recognize that the government has
over-promised. Therefore, individuals who are not in retirement or at
retirement age need to assume they'll have to take more personal
responsibility for their own financial futures. At the same time, the
federal government should have a sound and secure safety net for the
SCOTT C., DEERFIELD, IL:What would be the probability of the government printing money to pay
for the deficit instead of raising taxes or reducing programs? What
will inflation look like?
DAVE WALKER:Scott, we simply cannot inflate our way out of our $53 federal
financial burden since the $41 trillion in off-balance sheet
obligations grows faster than inflation.
KATHLEEN C., FOREST PARK, IL:How will a continuation of the growing gap between rich and poor, with
the shrinking of the middle class, affect the long-term stability of
the U.S.? Is it important to address this issue?
DAVE WALKER:Good question, Kathleen. There is a growing gap between the rich and
the poor in the world and within the U.S. This is a serious issue and
could result in additional tensions and civil unrest over time if it is
not addressed. The degree of risk will depend in part on the certainty
and security of the government's social safety net.
DOUGLAS S., BRISTOL, CT:Nobody likes to pay taxes. But everybody wants safe roads, bridges,
police, firemen, national security and related forces...I think people
would be less frustrated about paying taxes if they could believe their
money wasn't being wasted...If Congress authorizes a PayGo
[pay-as-you-go] system like we had in the 1990's, will programs such as
NIH [National Institutes of Health] funding to cure chronic diseases
like diabetes still be seen as an investment?
BOB BIXBY:This observation reflects the frustration many Americans feel about
the way the government spends their tax dollars. They simply don't
trust politicians to spend the money wisely. Politicians must remedy
this frustration if they are going to expect their constituents to pay
higher taxes or accept cuts from projected spending levels on important
programs such as Medicare and Social Security. No one will accept such
sacrifices if they think the savings will be squandered. It is true, as
we point out in the movie, that pure waste and "pork" is a relatively
small part of the budget. But it is a very big deal in shaping public
perceptions. So while politicians can't entirely fill the $53 trillion
hole by cracking down on waste, fraud and abuse -- or frankly come
anywhere close -- they can begin to regain public trust and build
consensus for the more difficult budgetary choices by demonstrating
that they know how to set priorities and distinguish between political
wants and public needs.
As a technical point, the pay-as-you-go rule (paygo) does not apply to
annually appropriated programs such as NIH funding. It only applies to
entitlements and taxes. Nevertheless, it's an excellent question
because it raises the distinction between government spending on things
that have a potential payoff down the road (i.e., investments) and
things that do not (i.e., consumption). Currently, the government does
not do a very good job of distinguishing the two. In fact, two-thirds
of the budget is committed to entitlement programs such as Social
Security, Medicare and Medicaid along with interest on the national
debt. If we simply allow these items to grow on autopilot, the
resulting spending will crowd out investments that could help grow the
economy. Clearly, there are areas such as health care and scientific
research, roads and bridges, education and homeland security where we
could invest (spend) more. There is no reason to presume, however, that
these investments must be deficit financed. They can, and should, be
financed by setting priorities, cutting back on low priority items,
including tax loopholes that have no economic justification and, if
necessary, raising new revenues. Paygo is an important tool for
enforcing such trade-offs. Its basic logic is that if something is
worth doing, it is worth paying for. Paygo is not inconsistent with
investment. To the contrary, it seeks to stop the fiscal bleeding and
encourage wiser allocation of our tax dollars.
BRAD P., FORT COLLINS, CO:Given the influence that special interest groups have in Washington,
how can the unrepresented majority of Americans plead their case for
sound monetary policy and fiscal sanity, especially when no candidates
are legitimately addressing the issue?
BOB BIXBY:Paul Tsongas used to say that politicians are like weathervanes.
They will point wherever the wind is blowing. Our job is to change the
wind direction. The way to do that is to become a local activist for
fiscal responsibility and generational stewardship. We can help you
gather the facts. Once you do, start speaking out through social,
civic, and professional networks. Demand straight answers from
candidates and elected officials. When your local Member of Congress
holds a Town Hall meeting, go and make your voice heard. If you can
gather some friends and family, bring them along. Go to "Meet the
Candidate" forums and ask tough questions. Support those who give you
honest answers. Individual Americans have more power than they give
themselves credit for.