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Continued: St. Anthony: Retirees seek to reduce debt wisely

  • Article by: NEAL ST. ANTHONY , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 20, 2013 - 6:46 PM

Linda Henderson and Lou Burdick, now both retired after successful business careers, are not your typical retirees.

Worried about the federal debt and the burden it will leave for their children and grandchildren, the women are supporters of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan provider of budgetary facts that long has warned about the dangers of federal budget deficits and the need to reform entitlement spending.

"Doing a little something to educate people is better than nothing at all," said Henderson, 63, who arranges meetings on the subject for Rotary and church groups. "I was very fortunate in business. I also have a responsibility ... and I will pay more in taxes if necessary."

Similarly, Burdick, 69, who hosted a Concord Coalition presentation recently at her Minneapolis University Rotary Club, believes a balanced, long-term approach to trim several trillion from the mounting $16 trillion national credit card is appropriate.

"We don't want to drive the country back into recession through austerity," Burdick said. "I'd like to see a 'grand bargain' struck between President Obama and Congress. I'm absolutely an advocate of spending cuts and revenue increases. In business, you don't just turn it around solely by cutting expenses. It's about balance. And the people we elect to Congress should seek common ground and act for the common good."

Call them militant moderates -- low-decibel counterpoints to the Tea Party types in Congress who have seriously proposed that the country default on its obligations rather than raise the debt ceiling.

That would threaten our national creditworthiness and likely erode confidence in the economic recovery, says the Concord Coalition. And the recovery already is driving down our debt-to-economic output ratio, a good thing, noted Jim Paulsen, economist and chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management.

The good news is that outfits like the Concord Coalition (www.concord coalition.org) and Fixthedebt.org -- the offshoot of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission -- are attracting a larger following among the public and business interests -- in part because of the grass-roots efforts of folks like Henderson and Burdick.

"Congress should lift the debt ceiling as quickly as possible -- no more 11th-hour nail-biters -- while putting in place a comprehensive plan to bring the debt back down to manageable level," Maya MacGuineas, head of the Campaign to Fix the Debt, said recently. "The focus of the plan should be reforming the nation's entitlement programs that their own trustees have declared to be unsustainable.''

(There were hints Friday that the Republican-controlled House was getting the message. A House vote on an extension of the debt ceiling could come to a vote next week, according to the New York Times.)

Sara Imhof, a onetime nurse and General Accounting Office analyst, worked with Burdick and Henderson as Midwest director of the coalition.

"The politics is still about bipartisan bickering." Imhof said. "Some Democrats say leave entitlements out of any bargain. Republicans say no more taxes. If politicians asked their constituents for shared sacrifice, I think the response would be good. We're encouraged by that."

The New York Times pointed out recently that many of the big-business CEOs are pushing a long-term debt-reduction deal, from Honeywell to General Electric. They have benefited from corporate subsidies, special tax breaks and low personal rates since 2001, for which they lobbied. Fixthedebt.org responded that its well-heeled members are willing to be a paying part of a long-term global solution on the budget.

Fair enough. Many businesspeople have embraced a balanced, long-term debt solution. They want a plan so they can plan. That's reasonable. Some certainty will breed confidence, investment, hiring and a faster-growing economy.

President Obama and the Democrats pledge that entitlement reform, if any is considered, should not hurt the lower-income elderly. Seems reasonable. And well-off seniors can pay more for their subsidized Medicare insurance.

And if we're going to gradually raise the Social Security retirement age, maybe we should apply the payroll tax on incomes higher than the current cap of $113,000? There are myriad compromises to make.

The Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government will spend $3.56 trillion this year. And bring in $2.44 trillion. That's a $1.12 trillion deficit.

The deficits since 2001 were driven by the Bush tax cuts, borrowing for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the recent recession and related federal stimulus spending.

Surveys show most Americans -- most of whom benefit from government payments and tax breaks -- prefer to cut foreign aid. Yet that's about 1 percent of the budget. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense consume nearly two-thirds of the budget. And throw in $220 billion in annual interest on the federal debt.

John Himle, the veteran business adviser, noted that the Washington rancor feeds uncertainty.

"Most businesspeople are willing to support a level of shared sacrifice ... as long as it's directed toward these deficits and the long-term debt," Himle said.

The numbers and plain talk at the Concord Coalition's website are instructive. The commitment and selflessness of retirees such as Henderson and Burdick are commendable.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com

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