Editorial: No, we're not Greece. Yet.

  • Updated: May 19, 2010 - 6:41 PM

For U.S. to avoid fiscal calamity, be ready for sacrifices.

"Know this: America is not Greece," read the headline Sunday on economist Paul Krugman's column. "'More takers than makers': That's Europe," countered columnist George F. Will the next day, ending his analysis with: "The U in the EU (European Union) -- the unifying thread -- is indiscipline. Increasingly it also is the unifying characteristic of the USA."

That there is even a debate about whether America is heading for a Greek-style fiscal crisis speaks scary volumes about the severity of our national debt, and about the depth of doubts over whether America's leaders, or we Americans, are up to solving the problem.

Yet this is a solvable problem, mainly the result of making promises in entitlement programs that are unsustainable but fixable. The hard part is that a remedy will require stepping back from the rigid ideologies of this particularly partisan era, which have Republicans locked in a seemingly permanent no-new-taxes crouch and Democrats still skittish about touching the third rail of Social Security or the even more vexing problem of Medicare, which will require bolder steps to control health care costs than the public has been willing to face.

"We got into this situation by raising spending and cutting taxes, and it seems quite logical to get out of the situation by cutting spending and raising taxes. That's arithmetic, not ideology," said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the nonpartisan Concord Coalition, one of two leading organizations dedicated to addressing public debt.

David M. Walker, the president and CEO of the other organization, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, adds that "the idea we can solve this problem without spending constraint as well as revenues on the table, is just a fiction."

President Obama hasn't yet shown the political will to drop this fiction, but the fiscal facts have led him to do the Washington equivalent: appoint a blue-ribbon panel, the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.

The panel will issue its report and recommendations by Dec. 1. While that might seem speedy by D.C. standards, it's too late for candidates and voters to react in November's midterm elections. The convenient timing is typical of the politically expedient and irresponsible delay that has put the country in this position in the first place.

And that -- the central role of politics -- is the point. America's debt problem (like Greece's and Europe's, truth be told) is not in fact an economic problem, nor a demographic problem, nor a policy design problem. It is a political problem, a problem of political will. Some combination of benefit reductions and tax increases is needed, but it will happen only if and when voters start rewarding candidates who speak this simple truth and punishing those who deny it.

Voters need not wait to determine who is speaking to them like adults. It will be apparent this year. Tuesday's primaries showed voters unhappy and willing to make big changes. But particularly in the case of Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who won his party's nomination for U.S. Senate, the focus is too much on changing politicians but not citizens' expectations. Paul's victory speech claimed "a message from the Tea Party" that "we have come to take our country back."

Fine. But what he and many members of the ascendant Tea Party movement fail to mention is that "taking it back" will also require giving back in the form of lower benefits and higher taxes.

The only actual alternative is to wait to make real changes until America really is in a Greece-like crisis. Given the American economy's central role in the world, that will be a dark and panic-stricken day across the globe.

  • ENTITLEMENT MATH

    "Both the far right and the far left would fail math. What they advocate on the far right is we can solve our structural deficit problems without more revenues. And on the far left that we can solve our structural deficit problems without renegotiating the social insurance contract. They're both wrong."

    DAVID M. WALKER, president, Peter G. Peterson Foundation

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