Hey, Bill! Why no pledge? In August of 1992, an organization of 18 to 30--year-old Americans called "Lead...or Leave" began asking all Congressional and Presidential candidates to do one simple thing: take a pledge to reduce the budget deficit to half of its current level by 1996, or refrain from seeking re-election.
Ross Perot and more than 100 bipartisan Congressional candidates took the "Lead...or Leave" pledge. Even Democratic Sen. Paul E. Tsongas and Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman endorsed the pledge and the bipartisan "Lead...or Leave" organization. When the new Congress convenes in January, nearly 20 members of Congress will have linked their political careers to reducing the budget deficit.
Bill Clinton repeatedly made a campaign promise to the American people to cut the deficit in half by 1996. Yet, he refused to take the "Lead...or Leave" pledge. This behavior only serves to indicate President-elect Clinton's insincerity toward this crucial issue.
Clinton's failure to seriously address the budget deficit should leave a bitter taste in the mouths of young Americans. No other issue will more directly and significantly affect our generation's future standard of living and our nation's economic sovereignty.
I voted for Bill Clinton. But as our next president, he scares me, because I fear that he and his Democratic advisers, in the backs of their minds, believe that since the Republicans had 12 years of deficit-financed fun, they are entitled to at least four. The Democrats simply must recognize that in the long-run, if we fail to get our fiscal house in order, the "change" they hope to effect will amount to nothing.
Clinton has repeatedly justified his inattention to the budget deficit by arguing that the United States has, in fact, two deficits: a budget deficit and an investment deficit. During the campaign, he proposed addressing the second of these by investing billions in infrastructure and education, while somehow cutting the deficit in half by 1996 through defense cuts and an increase in the tax rate of the wealthiest 2 percent of the population.
It would be nice if this were possible, but most economists believe that it isn't. Real deficit reduction will require further spending cuts or tax increases, neither of which Clinton discussed during the campaign. His spokespeople have admitted as much recently by suggesting that enormous deficits may continue until the economy starts moving again.
It is hardly surprising that Clinton has refused to focus seriously on reducing the deficit. Budget deficits are the politician's best friend. They allow him or her to buy votes today with money that will be paid off, with interest, by future generations. While our generation was growing up during the 1980s, two Republican presidents and hordes of members of Congress threw honor to the wind and financed an extended party for the country with money pilfered from our future paychecks.
The magnitude and growth trend of our national debt are truly frightening. Over the past 12 years our country's level of indebtedness has increased from $1 trillion to $4 trillion. Much more disturbing is the fact that our total debt as a proportion of gross national product has increased from just over 30 percent to nearly 70 percent. If current trends continue, the proportion will increase to 100 percent within five years. We are a rich nation. But even millionaires get into trouble when the amount they are in hock (out total debt) is equal to or greater than their annual income (our GNP).
Our debt, like a Chinese water torture device, torments and slowly undermines our long-term economic well-being. In recent months, according to financial analysts, more than 50% of the money lent by commercial banks has gone not to individuals, entrepreneurs, or companies who will create new business opportunities and jobs, but rather to fund federal borrowing.
This would not be so bad if our government were spending the money it borrowed on things that will make us richer in the future. But nearly 75 percent of all federal spending goes toward the military, Social Security, Medicare and interest on the debt. Neither tanks and bombers, nor rich, healthy old golfers contribute to the future wealth and productivity of the United States.
President-elect Clinton does hope to increase spending on items such as education and infrastructure that will enhance the future economic vitality of the United States. But if he is unwilling to consider cuts in Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees, or a gasoline tax, or ending such boondoggles as the tax deductibility of mortgages for all houses--even vacation homes--then he has little hope of reducing the budget deficit. Government borrowing will continue crowding out private investment, yielding lower growth rates in productivity, living standards, and the gross national product.
In short, Clinton is simply piling good debt (to finance investments in America and Americans) atop bad. His plan to "put people first" will do little in the long-run unless it is accompanied by a real reorientation of our taxation and expenditure policies to reduce the deficit and set the stage for future prosperity.
Our generation must no longer submit to fiscal child abuse. We have a larger personal stake in the country's future than Bill Clinton, our parents or our grandparents. It is time for us to raise our voices and demand fiscal responsibility from President-elect Clinton and the 535-odd members of Congress who also refused to sign the pledge.
"Lead...or Leave" is ready to lead the charge. And we will not be alone in pushing for fiscal responsibility. Nearly 20 percent of the electorate voted for Ross Perot, whose campaign cornerstone was a radical reduction in the federal deficit. Perot's former supporters and their organization, United We Stand, along with "Lead...or Leave" and Tsongas' and Rudman's Concorde Coalition can work together to let our leaders know that the artful dodges of the past will no longer be acceptable.
Clinton and the new Congress will not be convinced to act until people start yelling about the budget deficit--and loudly! Young Americans who want to work toward the future well-being of the country can do little more important than phone, write letters or meet personally with their member of Congress and emphasize the importance of reducing the deficit. This is how democracy works. Prior to the election, "Lead...or Leave" pestered candidates and staged rallies across the state. We were able to convince two local candidates to take the pledge, one of whom was elected.
Right now, students at the College, the Kennedy School and the Business School are starting chapters of "Lead...or Leave" to continue the fight for the future. I hope that everyone will join the crusade to tell elected representatives and Bill Clinton to lead...or leave.
Allen p. Webb '91, a proctor in Stoughton Hall, is the Massachusetts Coordinator for "Lead...or Leave."