The co-chairs of President Obama's deficit-cutting task force acknowledged today that the chance of their group actually reaching any substantial conclusions is slim.
"Both of us agreed we may only be able to move the football a yard," said Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator, sitting alongside Erskine Bowles, former Clinton White House chief of staff. Obama's rules require any proposal the group needs to win support from 14 of its 18 members.
Asked about the prospect of a deadlock, Bowles, sounding reconciled to it already, declared "that won't be victory, but we will have made real progress."
The progress, Bowles said, will come in having educated the American people about the dangers of the deficit. And that, judging from the co-chairs' rhetoric, will involve scaring the heck out of people.
If the federal budget remains on autopilot, "everything you deeply love," Simpson said, muttering something about the "the children and the poor" is "not gonna be there."
Bowles warned that the United States could face actual bankruptcy.
People, he said, worry about the Chinese no longer buying our debt. "What if they start to sell it?" he asked. "My God! The crisis is going to be incredible. Greece just went through it." Investors have lost confidence in Greece's ability to repay its bonds and the country is in utter economic chaos.
Simpson and Bowles, along with a slew of the other members of their commission, spoke at today's "Deficit Fest", a swanky, nearly day-long symposium on "fiscal responsibility" sponsored by billionaire investment banker and deficit hawk Peter G. Peterson's eponymous foundation.
The symposium's core conviction is that "everybody" (as moderator Leslie Stahl put it) recognizes what needs to be done to cut the long-term deficit. But the only concrete areas of agreement seem to be that cuts in Social Security and Medicare must be a part of deficit
reduction, while cuts in military spending are (as moderator Gwen Ifil put it) "never an option."
It's a fundamentally banker-friendly agenda that glosses over the current unemployment crisis and puts the burden of balancing the budget most obviously on the poor, the sick and the elderly.
To the symposium's credit, a few insurgents were invited to appear on its panels. Center of Budget and Policy Priorities Executive Director Bob Greenstein repeatedly reminded the audience of the enormous cost of tax giveaways to the wealthy and corporations.
Economic Policy Institute President Lawrence Mishel argued that cutting Social Security benefits, for instance by increasing the retirement age, would unduly affect lower-income people.
And, he added: "One of my concerns about the deficit discussion is the excitable nature of the fear-mongering."