No One Likes a Deficit Bore

This post is part of our forum on Michael Kinsley's October cover story exploring the legacy of the Baby Boomers and what they owe the country. Follow the debate here.

Michael Kinsley writes, as always, with flair and wit and smarts, and this is a good and important debate to have.

For years now, I've been one of the "deficit bores" to which he alludes.  I can clear a dinner table in less than 60 seconds, moaning like a dockyard Elijah about the deficit and the inevitable reckoning.

I've read Pete Peterson's books, listened to his lectures, nodding my head at every sentence like a rear-dash bobblehead doll.  And no one--really, no one--seems to give a (I'll deploy an alternative to the usual Boomer term) hoot.  Yeah, yeah, we're going broke.  Pass the Hollandaise, would you?  And put a sock in it.

I worked at the White House in the early Reagan administration, at a time when the deficit rocket really started to take off.  The problem was that Reagan had promised to a) cut taxes and b) increase defense spending.  You remember: supply side?  Candidate George H.W. Bush called it "voodoo economics," his argument being that you couldn't cut the deficit without cutting non-defense spending.  Mr. Bush stopped calling it that round about January 20, 1981.  Reagan then cut taxes, increased defense spending, and didn't cut entitlement spending.  Oops.

As the deficits began mount--though they were mere trifles, pittances compared with the Mt. Everest variety with us today--I meekly raised my little voice and said, "But I thought we Republicans were supposed to be the 'Daddy Party'--the responsible ones.  The designated driver-party."

The answer, rendered most succinctly, 20 years later by Vice President Dick Cheney, himself part of a Republican administration that managed to double the national debt in eight years, was: "Deficits don't matter."  P.S. Go f--- yourself.

Bringing us, finally, to the matter of Boomer complicity--or non-complicity--in this dreadful mess.
Michael and our fellow commentators seem to go back and forth on the matter of whose deficit is it, anyway?  Good arguments are made on both sides.  But they're beside the point.  The more pressing question is: Whose cliff is it we're driving off?  And the answer to that is: ours.  All ours.

Myself, I'm a post-ideological conservative.  (If that makes any sense.)  Put it this way: life-long Republican; disappointed Republican; Obama voter.  I think (along with my superior, David Brooks) that we might as well face reality: we're going to have to cut spending and raise taxes.  (Good luck with that, America.)

Michael's idea is an admirable one, and my hat is off to him for trying to get us to focus, but let's get real: his dog ain't gonna hunt.

So many bright people come forward with good ideas--and nothing ever happens.  And nothing will.  In a 24/7 news cycle, with all the shrieking, howling voices and rapid-response and instant spinning and Soviet-style disinformation-mongering, a good idea has a shelf life of about, um, six seconds.

Meanwhile, we deficit bores will continue to go on ruining dinner parties.  Nothing will happen--until we actually drive off the cliff.  At which point we Boomers, or more likely, our successor Gens (X, Y, and Z?) will have their shot at becoming the Greatest Generation 2.0.

My own contribution to this debate, for whatever it's worth, was in a novel I wrote in 2007.  It was exactly on Michael's theme, namely how Boomers might give back and solve our insolvency.

Ripping a page from Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal," the novel ventures a solution to the coming Social Security bankruptcy: that the government incentivize Boomer suicide.  Tax breaks for offing yourself at age 65.  Well, it's one way to save $14 trillion.

I could give you the details here on the Internet, but hold on, Michael.  You're not suggesting that I give it away for free?  Whoa.  I'm a Boomer.  We don't do free!

The debate continues here.