Erskine Bowles is on a mission to steer the United States to a strong fiscal future, and he relayed that charge with a mix of passion, gravity and humor during his presentation at the Lesley University Boston Speakers Series in historic Symphony Hall last night.
Bowles, who served as President Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, was tapped by President Barack Obama in 2010 to co-chair the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with former Republican Senator Alan Simpson. His talk succinctly captured the tenets of the Simpson-Bowles plan for fiscal reform and warned of imminent economic crisis unless the House and the Senate take immediate action.
“The path we’re on is simply not sustainable,” said Bowles. “These deficits are a cancer that will destroy America from within.”
During his hour-long lecture, Bowles outlined the greatest challenges facing our nation, including healthcare costs, the tax code and Social Security. He named healthcare the most threatening problem, noting that the United States spends twice as much on healthcare as any other developed country, despite the fact that U.S. healthcare ranks low among those nations and still fails to cover many Americans.
If immediate reforms are adopted, he said, “America is capable of being the best and brightest.” If not, “We’re well on our way to becoming a second-rate power.”
The billions of dollars the U.S. is spending on interest on its debt should instead be used to invest in programs such as education, infrastructure, and incentives for schools to train more primary care physicians and nurses, Bowles asserted.
“What makes it doubly bad is our (interest payments) are spent primarily in the countries we compete with, primarily in Asia,” said Bowles. “We can’t be the first generation to leave this country worse off than we found it.”
Painful as they may be, reforms, both small and large, will make a significant long-term difference, according to Bowles. He called for wiping out “backdoor spending” in the tax code, cutting entitlement programs, making Social Security “sustainably solvent,” and drastically reducing national defense spending.
“We spend more in the U.S. (on defense) than the next 17 largest countries combined, and that includes Russia and China,” he said. “America is bearing a disproportionate responsibility for world peace. I don’t think we can afford to be the world’s policeman.”
“Today, America has a treaty with Taiwan – we’ll protect them if they’re invaded by the Chinese. There’s just one problem: We’ll have to borrow money from China to do it,” he exclaimed.
Despite the sobering messages he delivered, Bowles spoke with warmth and humor throughout his speech, regaling the audience with anecdotes that elicited laugher– whether he was poking fun at his former boss, President Bill Clinton, or making himself the target of his tales.
“People have asked me, ‘Tell us what it’s like to be president of a university,’ and I say, ‘It’s exactly like being CEO of a cemetery: There are lots of people underneath you, and no one’s listening,’” quipped Bowles, who was president of the University of North Carolina system for five years.
Following his speech, Bowles engaged in a Q&A session moderated by Phil Redo, managing director of WGBH-FM. He fielded questions such as whether Senators and Representatives really understand the deficit problem, why President Obama didn’t support the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s recommendations, and what it was like to work in the White House for President Clinton.
“You can’t believe the breadth of issues you face and the pace,” said Bowles, who described himself as “a little guy from North Carolina” who never dreamed he’d end up working in the White House. “Bill Clinton was an extraordinary man to work for. He’s the most intellectually curious man I’ve ever met.”
At the conclusion of his talk, in spite of the bleak picture he painted, Bowles said he is hopeful and urged the audience to take action as citizens and demand bipartisan cooperation and “shared sacrifice” to stabilize the economy. He encouraged people to visit the fiscal reform commission’s website, www.FixTheDebt.org.
“We’ve just got to stand up and do it, and we’ve got to demand that our elected politicians take their stand,” he said, adding that the electorate must support politicians who take a hard line on fiscal reform.
“Do it for your grandkids. Do it for your kids. Do it for us. Do it for the country,” Bowles exhorted.
To learn more about Lesley University’s Boston Speakers Series and see a full schedule of speakers, click here.