All hail the conquering army of budget balancers, chanting "Less Stuff! More Pain" as they prepare to storm the Bastille. A little far to fetch, and even if you were to learn that a billionaire was planting to spend one billion dollars to force the country to get serious about the perils of deficits and debt, then you'd still have the problem: how do you get people, ordinary people, and politicians, to think clearly about their predicament and to realize that the only solutions involve less stuff and more pain. Peter G. Peterson, the Blackstone group billionaire and financial wise man, briefed reporters this morning on an ambitious act of economic altruism. His new Peter G. Peterson Foundation -- PGPF -- was responsible for hiring away one of the best comptroller-generals the country has ever had, David Walker, and putting him into service as an evangelist for debt reduction. Peterson and Walker and a host of affiliated luminaries -- including Ross Perot -- are serious. The foundation will award hundreds of millions of dollars worth of grants to groups working to tame the deficit; they've even commissioned a documentary called I.O.U.S.A to dramatize the peril of a $53,000,000,000,000 penalty that hangs over our head.
Peterson said the problem was consumption, and when a reporter asked him about solutions, he was almost too blunt. "A reduction in benefits," he said. Walker quickly jumped in. "We believe in a strong, safe, secure social safety net." Tax preferences favor the wealthy, Peterson said, when they should favor the poor or near-poor. But long-term sustainabiliy in the PGPF view impossible without a large number of people sharing the pain of fewer guaranteed benefits from the government. (Social Security, Walker allowed, was "an easy fix" -- much more onerous are Medicaid, Medicare and their inherent demographic instabilities.) Walker said that he and Peterson had met with the economics advisers to both presidential candidates and planned to sit down with Obama and McCain in the future. Walker said the foundation was non-partisan, although Dr. Peterson has long known McCain and supports his presidential campaign. Tomorrow, the foundation hosts a major gala with, among other guests, Robert Rubin.
I should note, by way of disclosure, that the foundation has hired Elizabeth Wilner, a friend and former boss of mine (and also a former NBC News Political Director), to handle public affairs.
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