When the debt ceiling discussions began, months ago, the country appeared to be split between two contrary opinions. Most conservatives had become convinced that the U.S. was “broke,” and that only immediate and titanic cuts in spending could possibly save us. Most liberals were convinced that “debt and deficit” problems were not real, and were simply a ploy for conservatives to cut spending.
Although there still seems to be widespread confusion about the issues at hand, it seems like the general public has learned a good deal in the runup to the Aug. 2nd deadline (if not as much as one would hope). We’ve learned, for example, that sovereign debt ratings, not just our ability to borrow, are important — and at stake. We’ve learned a good deal about the sources of our deficits and debt — even if we still disagree about how to handle them.
I find, in talking to liberals and conservatives on this issue, that certain simple — but effective — ideas can appeal to both sides, without being caught up in the “grand narratives” that characterize each side in our Congressional stalemate. One of them, the idea of tying job creation to overseas tax repatriation holidays, I discussed in a previous post (and will simply list here). But there are others, and I would like to suggest that implementing even one or two would radically change the game, by changing the confidence level of citizens, companies, and the world in our ability to address our issues.
I would further suggest that our largest problem today is not a crisis of confidence about U.S. indebtedness. Americans and the world at large lack confidence in the ability of Americans to govern their way out of the problem. The global markets, and the bond market in particular, want U.S. sovereign debt to remain the risk-free benchmark, and despite occasional posturing, nobody is eager to displace the U.S. dollar as reserve currency, given the uncertainty and dislocation that would inevitably create, during a time of sluggish economic growth.
What we need to demonstrate is not, I would suggest, a complete solution to our deficit and debt problems, but a credible start and follow-through. President Obama has been talking about “significant downpayments” on deficit reduction for precisely this reason. It’s not a new idea. It’s also the strategy of every consumer with significant debt — you can’t simply tell the credit card company you’re trying to make payments, you have to establish a track record of actually doing it.
There are reasons, of course, that the party “out of power” would try to block even simple, common-sensical ideas. Winning the next election means not giving up points to the other side, if possible. But I hope we’re close to the point where Americans start demanding progress and solutions — not the ultimatum-style “solutions” we’ve seen daily in the debt ceiling “negotiations,” but concrete steps.
Here are a few that seem to have bipartisan appeal, in my discussions with folks lately.