Erskin Bowles: former Chief of Staff to President Clinton and prior to that a North Carolina businessman. Alan Simpson: at age 79, fourteen years senior to Erskin Bowles, and a former Republican senator from Wyoming. Alice Rivlin: also age 79, and Clinton’s former budget director. Peter Domenici: age 79, and a former Republican senator from New Mexico. These four people are the principal players in a set of competing proposals to do something about the US federal debt. They all have what Washington calls “gravitas”, which is a certain respectability that comes with age and experience. They also display that precious quality of “bipartisanship” which makes them supposedly immune from political bias. That’s why you get these Republican-Democrat partnerships: Simpson-Bowles, and Domenici-Rivlin. You would trust these people, wouldn’t you, to give you the cold, hard truth that politicians cannot deliver?
You shouldn’t. These people are good at delivering cold, hard truths in terms of areas of the budget to cut, and new sources of revenue to tap, which together over the long run will bring deficits down to zero and reduce the interest burden of the national debt to something manageable. But they won’t give you a vision of America under these new fiscal conditions. Reading through their proposals, we are left to imagine what America would be like in such a permanent state of austerity.