There's no easy way to fix the national debt, but it has to be addressed.
On Tuesday, the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CFRB) drew together conservative, liberal, and independent economists and politicians for a conference seeking ideas to increase economic growth and reduce the national debt.
Almost to a rule, the speakers presented specific ideas instead of partisan talking points. But two speakers stood out: right-leaning economist Michael Strain and longtime Democratic hand Leon Panetta.
Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, offered pragmatic ideas to boost economic growth. He lamented the current conservative antipathy towards immigration, and suggested that high-skilled workers should be welcomed into America's economic fabric.
Strain called for a long term approach to investing in and reforming K-12 education reform, and for skills-focused training after high school. These skills courses, Strain said, should be advanced enough to add significant value to individual productivity, but shorter and cheaper than college degrees. Expanding on this skills-based principle, Strain suggested that "workplace apprenticeships" offered a way for Americans to learn basic "best practices" and "how to scale that up" in whatever business endeavors they pursue thereafter.
He concluded with a hint of optimism, arguing that there are "ideas sitting on the table waiting to be tried," but that political leadership is a prerequisite.
Leon Panetta, a Democratic former Secretary of Defense and former CIA Director, brought forward this idea of leadership. Focusing on the budget deficit, he noted that "there is always the search for magical answers ... for a silver bullet that can somehow resolve this issue without requiring any sacrifice." But, he declared, we must make "very difficult decisions on very difficult issues."
"We are not going to deal with a $20 trillion debt unless we're willing to put everything on the table", he explained.
Panetta then outlined specifics to deal with the debt. He suggested spending "caps on nondefense" outlays and "caps on defense spending with some level of growth for inflation." He was also clear about confronting another fiscal challenge that other Democrats are loath to touch: entitlement spending. "For goodness sakes," Panetta said, "two-thirds of the budget is made up by entitlement spending!"
I smiled at his frustration, it is one I have long shared.
Panetta concluded in the same fashion as Strain. He noted that if fiscal reform is to be reached, "There are members [of Congress] that will pay a price," but, he added, "we elect members to make some very tough decisions for the country about what needs to be done."