The Deficit: Who Really Does Care?

GUEST COMMENTARY

It was interesting to read Boston Globe columnist Bob Kuttner's October 1st editorial entitled "Tsongas sounding a false alarm with deficit reduction plan," having just finished Steven Wardell's editorial "The Most Evil Tax of All" (Crimson, Oct. 1). The two articles assume very different stances concerning the priority which our citizenry should accord to reducing the budget deficit.

Apparently, Kuttner has officially declared the long-awaited end to the "great deficit crisis" as of 1998, while Wardell cites the fact that the U.S. government daily spends $1 billion more than it collects as constituting "a moral and economic crisis." One speaks with the voice of a retiring baby boomer, while the other voices the concerns of a young generation about to inherit the burden of an unprecedented government debt. Which viewpoint should responsible citizens with the national interest in mind heed?

The Boston Globe editorial criticizes the Concord Coalition, an organization committed to having the federal budget deficit eliminated by the turn of the century, for being "an epic case of well-meaning people pursuing a perverse goal." From Mr. Kuttner's perspective, Paul Tsongas, a generally wild and crazy politician when it comes to economics, and Concord Coalition co-sponsor Warren Rudman, a former Senator without the least bit of experience trying to reduce deficits, are just ill-informed and sadly misguided politicians.

Discontinue these efforts to highlight the current debt crisis which President Clinton's 1993 budget reduction plan will miraculously cure within half a decade, advises the Globe columnist. Reading further, one almost cannot help but grow nostalgic for Clinton's already failed economic stimulus package. Kuttner bemoans the "mere" 2.3 percent and 2.7 percent projected annual growth rates for 1993 and 1994, respectively.

Kuttner does not even see fit to mention that Clinton's proposed universal health care entitlement may, perhaps, threaten the Congressional Budget Office's projection that the budget deficit will decline from 4.3 percent to 2.5 percent of the GDP by 1998.

In Kuttner's view, not only is the Concord Coalition thus misguided; it is also unfair in its desire to make Social Security and Medicare benefits more need-based. Kuttner's profound vision of American social democracy would have entitlements flowing to everyone as a general rule, regardless of whether people actually need such public funding. Such thinking would deem it "just too bad" that the percentage of children below the poverty line has far surpassed the percentage of elderly living in poverty.

No wonder we as a nation are truly confronted with a crisis of political leadership (as Wardell highlights in his editorial). Too many politicians think along the same lines as Kuttner regarding entitlements. Is it a coincidence that the AARP constitutes the United States' largest, most powerful lobbying group? Would any self-interested politician want to ruffle the baby boomers' feathers as they prepare to pad their nests for retirement? Would such politicians be overly concerned with the less than stellar voting record of America's youth when they have plenty of baby boomer votes to rely on?

Unfortunately, we, as America's young generation inheriting the debt, are politically underrepresented. We have no AARP lobbying day and night for our interests in Washington D.C. All we have, essentially, is an organization called Lead or Leave led by a bipartisan advisory board of courageous politicians and academics from Paul Tsongas to William Weld to Ben Friedman.

Despite Clinton's first step toward addressing the deficit issue in his 1993 budget agreement, the Lead of Leave organization firmly believes that the deficit will continue to be an important issue. The parochial interests which tore away much of the fabric of Clinton's plan within his own party and Vice-President Gore's needed tiebreaker vote point to the problems inherent in future deficit reduction.

Successful health care reform is pivotal to keeping deficit reduction on track. This will require bipartisan efforts either to accept Clinton's plan in a modified version or to adopt an altered Republican version. Without health care reform, no meaningful deficit reduction will ultimately be accomplished.

Indeed, an August 16 Time magazine reports that slowing the growth of health care costs from 12 percent to 8 percent "would do more for the budget of the Federal government, for every corporate budget and, overtime, for every household in America than anything this deal and every other deficit deal combined ever anticipated."

The same Time issue also starkly reports, referring to the passage of the 1993 budget agreement, "For all that was accomplished last week, none of it will endure unless health-care costs come down."

So much for Mr. Kuttner's hasty conclusions. Roll up your sleeves, fellow citizens. We as a country still have much work to do.

Douglas J. Lanzo '94 is Quincy co-chair of Harvard Lead or Leave.