Graphic displays of the growing tax code
Pet-related tax breaks didn't apply to Willow the cat's excellent adventure

How to avoid federal budget catastrophe

I just spent the last hour and a half listening to a group of fiscal and political experts discuss ways to avoid a federal budget catastrophe.

The bottom line: These folks, not Congress, need to be dealing with our financial troubles.

Members of the Tax Policy Center panel included:

  • Leonard Burman, Daniel Patrick Moynihan Professor of Public Affairs at Syracuse University and Affiliated Scholar with the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center;
  • Michael Ettlinger, Vice President for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress; 
  • Alan Viard, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and
  • David Wessel, Economics Editor at the Wall Street Journal as moderator.

This politically and philosophically diverse group was able to make their opposing points clearly, calming and persuasively. No one ranted. No one called anyone a rude name. No one said another's ideas were worthless.

They talked. And offered evidence supporting their points.

And in many instances, they agreed.

They also, unlike some politicians, all wanted the same thing: finding a way to fix the United States' budgetary issues as quickly and effectively as possible.

After I go through my notes I'll share some of the specific points each panelist made. But I was so impressed by the panel's tenor as well as the content that I immediately wanted to note as a preview the way the participants conducted themselves.

And I will leave you with their closing thoughts on the issue of fiscal misinformation coming from Capitol Hill.

Wessel: A lot is said in Washington that is probably not true. What one thing do you hear in conversations that you want to correct?

Viard: That spending does not primarily go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and to a degree defense. It's a pernicious myth that allows people to put forward the idea that there are all sorts of easy solutions to reduce the deficit.

ASIDE: Earlier in the discussion it was noted that the words millions, billions and trillions sound too much alike. Amounts should be referred to as golf balls, watermelons and, fitting for D.C., hot air balloons.

Burman -- The shibboleth of Hauser's Law that tax revenues as a share of gross domestic product have averaged just under 19 percent, whether tax rates are cut or raised. The reality is that revenues stay level because we cut them when times are good and raise them when needed. But shifting demographics mean we need more revenues.

Ettlinger -- That there is all this we can cut in the federal government and people want it cut, that there is foolishly spent government money. This periodically gets a boost from such things as $16 [Defense Department conference] muffins.

ASIDE: This led to a quip about a possible new federal budget discussion mantra: We don't have an entitlement problem, it's a muffin problem.

And being a good moderator, Wessel closed the session with the oft-cited observation that people simply want more in benefits from Washington than they're willing to send in taxes to Washington.

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