Jacob Heilbrunn

It's Time for America to Downsize

The chairmen of President Obama's deficit commission are trying to convert him into a deficit hawk. Erskine Bowles, who was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, and former senator Alan K. Simpson have shunned the usual Washington boilerplate to offer a serious path toward avoiding the Grecian formula of economic collapse. Not surprisingly, their proposal is already attracting brickbats from the left and right because it would actually cut--as opposed to simply talking about cutting--the deficit. They would lop off some $3.8 trillion during the coming decade.

Even a number of the commission's 18 members may not support it. The Washington Post says that they seemed "startled" by its sweep. Good. Startling Congress into action is a good thing. For too long it has been somnolent about the debt peril, either pretending that economic growth and tax cuts alone can jumpstart the economy (it didn't happen during the Bush years, quite the contrary), or that debts simply don't matter and that entitlement programs should command precedence over any attempts at deficit reduction (according to Nancy Pelosi the plan is "simply unacceptable"). Neither is the case.

Among the commissioner's most sensible proposals are raising the age for Social Security eligibility, ending the home mortgage tax deduction, and proposing to tax employer-provided health insurance. The mortage deduction is a sop to realtors, an attempt to gin up the real estate market artificially. There is no reason homeowners should be privileged over renters. In part, the current real estate foreclosure mess is a direct result of government intrusion into the market by trying to boost home ownership, a key goal of the Bush administration. In truth, there should not be any tax deductions in the code; they all amount to freebies given away by legislators to placate and woo their constituents. But they distort the free market. The better approach would be to lower tax rates and dispense with any deductions.

It's also good to see that Bowles and Simpson are attacking the bloated Pentagon budget. They want to slash the number of American troops serving abroad by a third. The blunt fact is that America can no longer afford the vast commitments it has contracted in the past few decades. The question of repairing America's finances means that the president and Congress need to take a vigilant look at the commitments it has peccantly accrued. Walter Lippmann once wrote about the gap between commitments and resources--it's time to close what Samuel Huntington once called "the Lippmann gap." In short, like Detroit automakers, it's time for America to downsize.

For Obama, this is a golden opportunity to show that he is putting the nation's interests over the Democratic party's. The administration has already indicated that it will not oppose temporary full extension of the Bush tax cuts scheduled to elapse in January. Now Obama needs to show that he is serious about cutting spending and reducing the deficit. The deficit commissioners have provided him with the chance to save his presidency by saving America's economic fortunes. If he seizes it, he can go down in history as a bold visionary. If not, he will watch helplessly as his presidency deliquesces into oblivion.