Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson on the Debt Dilemma

  • submit to reddit

Does America’s $9 trillion federal debt mean we are mortgaging our future and jeopardizing individual savings, healthcare, and retirement for generations to come? Bill Moyers gets a reality check from Public Agenda’s Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, co-authors of WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?: YOUR GUIDED TOUR TO THE FEDERAL BUDGET CRISIS.


BILL MOYERS: You’ll remember that last week we previewed director Alex Gibney’s documentary TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE; a film about our government’s use of torture in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. Gibney exposed how responsibility reached all the way up the chain of command in Washington. The film has been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary, and was acquired for broadcast by the Discovery Channel.

But Discovery now says it won’t be shown after all. “Too controversial,” says the network. Gibney shook his head and said Discovery is perpetuating what has become the policy of this government: “it’s ok to employ torture, just not show it.” Well said. Better call FRONTLINE, Alex.

Also last week, we reviewed your picks for the one book that should be required reading for our next President. Some of you have written to protest that we did not mention on air the book DEBUNKING 9/11 DEBUNKING by David Ray Griffin. As I said last week, we didn’t include it on air because the responses had all the signs of an orchestrated campaign. You can go online and you will see some people don’t believe me. Now just take a look at these messages we found at just one blog site:

MALE VOICE: Let’s please all choose the same book to give it an extremely high rating.

MALE VOICE: Let’s use: DEBUNKING 9/11 DEBUNKING by David Ray Griffin.

BILL MOYERS: And so some of you did. I wouldn’t call it a conspiracy, but I wouldn’t call it fair, either.

Let’s talk now about money. Big money. After President Bush announced his 2009 budget last week my first thought was: where is Groucho Marx when we really need him?

FINANCE MINISTER: Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.

GROUCHO MARX: Clear? Huh. Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report…Run out and find me a four-year-old child. I can’t make head or tail of it.

BILL MOYERS: We could use that four-year-old prodigy right now. President Bush’s new budget adds up to more than three trillion dollars with a deficit of $400 billion dollars — that’s the amount to be spent over what the government takes in. And this week the President signed a stimulus package authorizing the Treasury to take $168 billion dollars more from future generations so we can spend it now. All this borrowing and spending will swell the total debt of the government to $9 trillion dollars. So where does all the money go?

For some answers we turn to this smart, hip, and very readable book. One would hope that every candidate for office, and every voter, might read it before the November elections. You’ll understand why once you have heard Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson of the non-partisan, non-profit research group, public

Scott and Jean welcome. Why did you write this book?

SCOTT BITTLE: We wrote this book because the federal budget and the country is heading toward a fiscal crisis. And everybody knows it except the American people. And they deserve to know.

JEAN JOHNSON: You know, one of the things I think most people don’t realize is that the country has been in the red 31 out of the last 35 years. In good times and bad. And so, you know–

BILL MOYERS: In the red, meaning we spend–

JEAN JOHNSON: We have a deficit.

BILL MOYERS: We spend more money than we take in 31 out of 30–

JEAN JOHNSON: 31 of the last 35 years.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, does being drunk get normal?

JEAN JOHNSON: It is routine. I think they have gotten in the habit in Washington, rather than making the tough choices, to just push the money along. And the thing that really amazes me is we are a wealthy country. Why are we routinely in debt?

BILL MOYERS: You call it a crisis.

SCOTT BITTLE: Well, it is a crisis. Eventually, if nothing is done, by 2040, every dollar the federal government has will be taken up by Social Security, Medicare and interest on the money we’ve already borrowed. Between where you and I work in New York, there’s this debt clock, put up almost 20 years ago by a gentleman who used his own money, because he was so  concerned–


BILL MOYERS: –about the mounting debt. But I’m told that it’s going to be running out of room to record the debt, right?

JEAN JOHNSON: Well, we’re over nine trillion now. And when it trips over to ten trillion, there’s no place to put the one, unless they take off the dollar sign, and just let us know that it’s money, which we probably all know that it’s money. But they didn’t, he didn’t anticipate that it was going to go to ten trillion dollars.

BILL MOYERS: So who’s to blame, Scott? Is it the politicians who make the promises, or is it those of us who like the benefits?

SCOTT BITTLE: I’m fond of the political philosophy of Homer Simpson, who said once that it takes two to lie: one to lie and one to listen. The American people have been the ones who’ve been listening. They see politicians who promise them tax cuts and don’t talk about how to pay for it. They know that’s not true. It’s just they don’t add those things together and stand up and say, “What are you saying?” One of the analogies we used in the book is to the movie, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. And the parallel that struck us as we were writing the book, is we had a lot of people tell us this is so far down the road; how can this possibly matter? And it’s similar to the movie in that, well, how can one person’s life make such a difference? The bottom line is if we don’t deal with this, we could end up living in an America that’s colder, harsher, darker, less prosperous. And it’s all completely avoidable.

BILL MOYERS: Well help us understand that. My youngest granddaughter will be 36 by 2040. How is this going to affect her? I’ll be dead. It won’t affect me. How will it affect her?

JEAN JOHNSON: Well, taxes could be higher because they’re going to be paying for a huge 78 million baby boomers who need retirement benefits and health care. There are going to be less services, like college loans won’t be available. Some of the examples we use in the IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE scenario is the mother. She collects Social Security and she has a little nest egg in the stock market. Well, they’ve had to cut her Social security benefits. And her nest egg in the stock market has tumbled. So it really could just spread through all sorts of our lives, in the things we depend on government in the taxes we pay, and in the state of the economy, which could be very bleak.

SCOTT BITTLE: I don’t think anyone realistically wants to get rid of Social Security and Medicare. Maybe a few. Nobody–

BILL MOYERS: You’ll hear the argument. As you say in the book, people come up and say, “But look those people have been promised. We’ve been promised these benefits. You can’t take them away.”

SCOTT BITTLE: No, but you can’t go bankrupt fulfilling them, either.

JEAN JOHNSON: It’s an interesting issue, because Social Security, there are lots of ways to adjust it that probably, if the American people start to think about it, are broadly acceptable. And if we start now, if we don’t postpone. And if you’re going to raise revenues a little bit, you want to do it while all the baby boomers are working, so we can pay into it. If you’re going to adjust benefits, you want to do it so we have time to plan, so it’s not sudden. And if you can make these modest adjustments and we start now, we have time to make a system so it’s stable, and really meets the expectations of most people.

BILL MOYERS: I enjoyed reading your 14 suggestions in here for dealing with Medicare and Social Security. But you’re not running for office. You’re not out there saying to people, “We’re going to take care of these benefits.”

SCOTT BITTLE: That’s why the politicians who are running for office and who will have to make these decisions have to start having a conversation with the American people. They’ve got to put these on the table. And they’ve got to make it clear to people. The fact is that the Americans are not going to let the political system change their health insurance and change their retirement benefits without their consent. They have to be part of this conversation. But first, you’ve got to be honest with them.

BILL MOYERS: You say 2010 is the high noon of the budget crisis. Why is that?

JEAN JOHNSON: Come 2010, when most of the Bush tax cuts are scheduled to expire, the country has to talk about this. And if we could talk about it, about how much we want to pay in taxes. We’re really digging ourselves in the hole. But if we have this discussion, talking about what we pay, what we’re going to spend, and what’s going to happen for the long term, I think that could be a turning point. And it’s the opportunity to get these issues on the table.

SCOTT BITTLE: It’s an ideal point to sit down and say, “What do we really want? What can we really afford?” If we continue to not deal with the realities, and the fact is, right now, one of the few areas of bipartisanship in Washington is the willingness not to deal with the problem.

BILL MOYERS: Exactly, exactly.

SCOTT BITTLE: If we fail to really sit down and have a national conversation and make real decisions in 2010, it’s hard to see when that moment will come again. Because it will still be early enough to deal with these long term problems.

BILL MOYERS: The train wreck comes, you say, on Social Security, in 2017. That’s when the government begins to pay out more–


BILL MOYERS: –than it’s taking in on Social Security?


SCOTT BITTLE: That’s the beginning of the train wreck. That’s when things–


BILL MOYERS: slow motion trainwreck?

JEAN JOHNSON: There are the money questions. And we think people need to know more about where the money is spent and where it’s going. And they need to be more realistic. But the political side of it, I think is really quite simple. There is no way to solve this problem without either raising taxes or cutting programs, or doing some of both. Right now, that is a political death sentence. And we have to change that. We have to change it so politicians are just as worried about what folks at home say if they add to the deficit. If they go along another year in the red ink. We have to start making politicians worry about those decisions.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think happens collectively? I mean, individuals do the right thing. But as a society, we’re breaking the bank. Can democracy deal with these kinds of very difficult choices?

SCOTT BITTLE: Absolutely. I’m totally convinced that the American people can deal with this.

BILL MOYERS: You’re an optimist?


BILL MOYERS: Why are your fingers crossed?

SCOTT BITTLE: I’m an optimist, and I have evidence. Which is, Public Agenda has done focus groups on this issue of the national budget. And it’s certainly true that when you bring people together to talk about the problems facing the country, this is not the first one on their list. But it’s also true that as soon as you explain a few of the facts to them, they get it. And they understand that everybody’s going to have to sacrifice a little. They understand compromise. And they’re willing to deal with it.

JEAN JOHNSON: I see a country that is hungry for change. I see a country that knows that in many different ways, we’ve become prisoners of short term thinking. They know that we have to make these decisions about what’s going to happen with Social Security and Medicare and the debt. And I guess we are optimists. But I just don’t believe that the country is going to let itself get into this kind of trouble. We may procrastinate. That’s what I’d like to stop.

SCOTT BITTLE: And we did this quite recently. We balanced the budget in the late ’90s. And that was a classic example of bipartisanship. It came about because the first President Bush and a Democratic Congress agreed to raise taxes to address the problem. And that President Clinton and a Republican Congress agreed to control spending to maintain targets for reducing the deficit. And we had, fortunately, a prosperous economy. That kind of bipartisanship has happened in the past. We’re in a bad place now, but I think we need to get past it.

BILL MOYERS: As you talk about doing something about Social Security and Medicare, I can hear some of our liberal friends saying, “But, you know, there they go again. That’s the conservative approach. And then they’re going to take it out of Social Security and Medicare. And there are ways to solve Social Security and Medicare so we don’t have to do what they’re saying.”

SCOTT BITTLE: It’s true. There are those who say any talk of Social Security is a stalking horse for privatization. And others on the other side who say any talk of reforming Medicare is a stalking horse for universal coverage, which they may not want. We’ve got to get past these kinds of hidden agenda concerns. We’ve got to look at the numbers. The numbers are not lying. And every organization that looks at this, liberal, conservative, in or out of government, it doesn’t matter. They agree on the problem. They all know it’s there.

JEAN JOHNSON: And I think one of the things we try to point out in the book is– for the people who do support Social Security and who do believe that Medicare is an important benefit that’s really helped Americans’ lives, we need to make these programs sustainable. Not addressing them, the choices of leaving them alone and pretending they’re untouchable, that will really do them in over time.

BILL MOYERS: What about the military budget? The president proposes $515.4 billion for next year. But that does not include the money for Iraq and Afghanistan. What are the practical consequences of not including the expenditures for Iraq and Afghanistan in the budget?

SCOTT BITTLE: Well, there are two practical consequences. One is, nobody really knows how much we’re spending, at least not until the end of the year, and we look back and say how much we’ve spent. The other is it obscures the real impact of the war on terror on the budget. We found lots of people basically think that once we get out of Iraq, the budget problem will go away. And unfortunately, that’s just not true. Between 2001 and 2007, we spent about $600 billion on the entire war on terrorism: Iraq, Afghanistan, everything else. Over that same period, we added 2.3 trillion to the debt. So the war is certainly making our financial problems worse. But it’s not the sole cause, and it’s not the sole answer. Is this the Ross Perot of 2008?

BILL MOYERS: True or false: Roll back Bush tax cuts, solve all the problems.

JEAN JOHNSON: It will not solve all the problems, unfortunately. I think, like the war, it’s a lot of money. But we are routinely overspending. And even if we rolled back all of those tax cuts, which not even the Democrats are proposing. Some of those tax cuts are for families and for married people. We still would face a major, major problem balancing the budget. And we have to remember, balancing the budget is not enough. We also have to look at Social Security and Medicare and make some decisions about them.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah. You make it very clear in here that we have to both cut spending and we’re also going to have to raise some taxes. I mean, that’s what people don’t like to hear, right? I mean, this is tough medicine.

JEAN JOHNSON: You know, you could do it theoretically, only by raising taxes. But it would be very, very difficult.

BILL MOYERS: Politically, you can’t do that.

JEAN JOHNSON: And one of the things we try to say to people in the book there’s a little worksheet, where you can figure out exactly how you would balance the budget. But we tell people, don’t get too attached. Because probably nobody is going to get their own way on this. We’re all going to have to give a little, and we’re all going to have to kind of live with some things that are not our first choice. But not doing anything is so much worse.

BILL MOYERS: The only person I read and hear talking about this in any consistent way is the present mayor of New York, Bloomberg. He just this morning has a speech in the paper about we have to address this issue; the two parties are not doing it. Is

JEAN JOHNSON: There are some people that are addressing this. There are groups that are addressing this. And we actually are meeting more of them day by day. So, you know, we are optimistic. But there are, it takes two to tango. And the American public really has to start being realistic. They have to give the political leaders a little room to maneuver. And I think they have to demand that they be more honest and responsible. And it’s time to talk turkey about this.

BILL MOYERS: You dedicate your book to Lawford W. Bittle, Jr. and John Jay Johnson. Who are they?

SCOTT BITTLE: Our fathers.

JEAN JOHNSON: Our dads, yeah.

BILL MOYERS: And why did you dedicate this to them?

SCOTT BITTLE: Because neither of them would have left debts for us to pay.

BILL MOYERS: Jean Johnson and Scott Biddle, thank you very much for WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?, YOUR GUIDED TOUR TO THE FEDERAL BUDGET CRISIS. And thank you for joining me today.

JEAN JOHNSON: Thank you.

SCOTT BITTLE: Thank you.

This transcript was entered on August 21, 2015.

  • submit to reddit