Professor’s Prologue by Dr. Michael Illuzzi, Assistant Professor of Political Science
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
In the same speech, Roosevelt labeled what he called “faddists and doctrinaires” as “mollycoddles”— overprotected and pampered ideologues not ready to seriously engage with the work of self-government. Today, many Republicans have signed Grover Norquist’s no tax pledge and many Democrats have avowed to make no cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Given our current political environment, it is worth asking whether our leaders have become the mollycoddles Roosevelt feared more than one hundred years ago.
Erskine Bowles is a politician cast in the same mold as Roosevelt. Mr. Bowles brings us two hard truths: first, there are many common sense strategies that could bring the U.S. debt problem under control; second, to do so requires that both sides make political concessions that will be unpopular with their core constituencies.
Mr. Bowles’ career has exemplified the virtue of trading ideological thinking for hard-nosed compromise. He is a prominent Democrat born and raised in the traditionally Republican state of North Carolina and he has proven himself a “doer,” moving seamlessly between the public and private spheres. Earning his undergraduate degree from North Carolina and an M.B.A. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business, he went into finance working for Morgan Stanley and then founded several middle-market private equity firms in North Carolina. Mr. Bowles used this experience to expand economic development in rural North Carolina. In 1993, President Clinton first appointed Mr. Bowles as the director of the Small Business Administration, and later the White House Chief of Staff where he helped negotiate the budget agreement in 1997 that produced the first balanced budget in a generation. In 2004, he was appointed the U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery in Southeast Asia. Following this appointment he served as president of the University of North Carolina system from 2006-2010.
Recently, Mr. Bowles served as co-chair of the bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, better known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, with Senator Alan Simpson. The Commission issued its findings in December 2010. Having been tasked by President Obama to address our nation’s fiscal challenges and recommend ways to reduce the deficit and balance the federal budget, the Commission produced perhaps the most highly publicized and praised budget proposal ever to fail to come to a vote. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the nation’s premier policy organizations, the Simpson-Bowles plan includes $2.9 trillion in spending cuts and $2.6 trillion in tax increases, it taxes capital gains and dividends as normal income, it reduces deductions for charitable contributions and mortgage interest, it gradually phases out the employer-provided health care deduction, it increases the taxable minimum on income to 90 percent for Social Security and slows the cost of living adjustments and raises the retirement age for the program. Simpson-Bowles dared to bring up facts that both sides have continued to bury, and the plan recently has reemerged in public debate over how to avert the fiscal cliff.
If we want to avoid becoming “mollycoddles” or aiding their pursuits, we must face uncomfortable facts and increase the level of bipartisan discourse. It is time to follow the advice of Roosevelt and start ignoring the “faddists and doctrinaires” who make for good headlines and sound bites and to instead pay greater attention to those who “[s]tand stoutly for [their] ideals, but keep in mind that they can only be realized, even partially, by practical methods of achievement.”
Erskine Bowles will address the Lesley University Boston Speakers Series on Wednesday, February 20, at 8 p.m. at Boston Symphony Hall. To see the full schedule of speakers for the Boston Speakers Series, click here.
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