Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles try to scare America into doing something about the deficit.

Commentary about business and finance.
Nov. 30 2010 6:59 PM

Be Afraid. Very Afraid.

Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles try to scare America into doing something about the deficit.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C), Erskine Bowles (L) and Alan Simpson (R). Click image to expand.
President Obama with Erskine Bowles, left, and Alan Simpson

Wonkish, crotchety, and mostly bald, the co-chairs of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform want you to care about the deficit the way cable television wants you to care about pedophiles. The threat might be remote, but when it comes, it comes closer than you think—and it is horrible. At a press conference this afternoon, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles described debt as a "cancer." They called it "dangerous." Bowles warned that if Congress really gets into a fight about the debt ceiling in the next few months, all financial hell will break loose.

Since the co-chairs released their proposal for getting America back in the black, Simpson says, it's been "the same old crap." People have responded with "emotion, fear, guilt, and racism." And the "far left" and "far right" are rounding up their "minions" to attack the plan as cruel or infeasible or insufficient or whatever. But Bowles and Simpson—they don't care. They just want to talk numbers and to scare the living bejesus out of you about debt.

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What will happen if the debt gets the better of us? Well, debt is not exactly like cancer. Death is not involved. But the economic prognosis is not good: The bond market may freak out, and you end up with austerity budgeting—rough, uneven cuts, rather than Bowles and Simpson's surgically precise plan.

"America: You have a serious problem!" Simpson said. "I do the numbers and Al does the color," Bowles said, taking over, stressing the need to have an "adult conversation" about what happens going forward.

But Simpson and Bowles, like all true obsessives, worry so much because they can do so little. They can start a conversation, of course. But Americans don't have to listen to them, and they appear not to be. Polls routinely show that Americans worry less about the deficit than they do about job creation and a plethora of other issues. Congress doesn't have to heed Simpson and Bowles, either. Even if the bipartisan commission agrees on and issues a deficit-reduction plan, neither chamber is required to bring it up for a vote, let alone implement it.

Moreover, and more importantly, most economists acknowledge that while the deficit and debt are real issues, the country's massive jobs crisis and broader economic malaise remain priority No.1. And those are problems that would be ameliorated by making the deficit bigger, not smaller, in the near term.

Nevertheless, the deficit is having its moment, what with the new more fiscally conservative Congress in place and the Obama administration turning away from stimulus and toward belt-tightening. "I think we won, and we won big," Bowles said. "The era of deficit denial in Washington is over."

To that end, Bowles and Simpson held a press conference today to announce that they had finalized a version of their deficit-slashing proposal and had gotten it scored, creating an official tally of how much money it will save, and how fast. Their 18 blue-ribbon, bipartisan team members will receive the document tonight. * Then, on Friday, two days after the commission's deadline, set by executive order, its members will vote. After that, it is up to Congress and its handshake promises to take it from there.

As often happens in Washington, the serious presser about the serious issue of serious debt had all of the gravity of a local 4H meeting. Bowles (Democrat, former White House chief of staff, president of the University of North Carolina system) and Simpson (Republican, former Wyoming senator) routinely come off like Statler and Waldorf—grandpa-humored, sometimes offensive.

This time, they plopped themselves down before two American flags in a double-wide, fluorescent-lit hallway jammed with reporters. "I chewed on one of those once, and they recorded it in Time magazine," Simpson quixotically grumbled, gesturing toward a tape recorder, a microphone, or a stack of papers, depending on where you were standing.

Then came the discussion of the pain—pain Bowles and Simpson acknowledge gravely and constantly. In their deficit-reduction plan, all budgets would be eventually balanced, all ledgers in the black. Earmarks would no longer exist, nor would tax expenditures. More Americans would pay federal income taxes, if at lower rates.

Then cuts, lots of cuts, cuts making up more than half of the chairs' proposal. Seniors would work longer and get less from Social Security in many cases, for instance. Dozens of federal programs would face the axe. The National Zoo would start charging admission.

As much as Bowles and Simpson like talking about the deficit, they like talking about cutting spending even more. At the press conference, one reporter queried the two about the arcane issue of federalizing municipal debt.

Bowles responded with an answer about earmarks.

"$1.1 trillion every year!" Simpson said.

If they had their way, they would ban them as part of their plan to wrench America back into black. And they want you to know it.

Correction, Nov. 30, 2010: The original version stated that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform is composed of 14 members. Return to the corrected sentence.

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Annie Lowrey is a contributing editor for New York magazine. She can be reached at annie.lowrey@gmail.com.

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