David Walker is a man on a mission. As U.S. comptroller general, he used the bully pulpit to fuel a campaign of town hall meetings highlighting the country’s ballooning federal deficit. The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour and the publicity it generated begat the documentary I.O.U.S.A. Walker hopes the film will do for fiscal irresponsibility what Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming—mobilize new citizen activists and pressure politicians to act.
A year ago, Walker stepped away from the five-plus remaining years on his term as comptroller general and head of the Government Accountability Office. He had been recruited by billionaire Pete Peterson, a co-founder of the private -equity fund The Blackstone Group, to become president and CEO of Peterson’s foundation. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, a nonprofit to which Peterson has pledged $1 billion, focuses on issues such as the deficit, savings levels, entitlement benefits, health care costs, and the nation’s tax system.
Walker talked with the JofA recently about the deficit and the financial crisis. What follow are excerpts from that conversation.
JofA: What did you hope to accomplish when you set out on your speaking tour and got involved with the documentary I.O.U.S.A., and what progress has been made on those goals?
Walker: I have been to over 42 states, giving speeches, participating in town hall meetings, meeting with business community leaders, local television and radio stations, and editorial boards with the objective of trying to state the facts and speak the truth about the deteriorating financial condition of the United States government and the need for us to start making some tough choices on budget controls, tax policy, entitlement reform and spending constraints. And the good news is that people get it. The American people are a lot smarter than many people give them credit for—especially elected officials
Well, a lot has happened since we started the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour. Two significant events would be the 60 Minutes piece, which ran twice in 2007, and that led to the commercial documentary I.O.U.S.A. (see a 30-minute version of the documentary at www.iousathemovie.com). So there’s a lot more visibility on our issue, and I think that’s encouraging. The other thing that has happened is the recent market meltdown and bailouts of some very venerable institutions in the financial services industry have served to bring things home to America. The concept of “too big to fail” is just not reality anymore, and when you take on too much debt and you don’t have adequate cash flow, some very bad things can happen.
Here’s the key. The factors that led to the mortgage-based subprime crisis exist for the federal government’s finances. Therefore, we must take steps to avoid a super subprime crisis, which frankly would have much more disastrous effects not only domestically but around the world.
JofA: How does the economic crisis affect your message and the outlook for the kind of wide-scale changes you think need to be made?
Walker: What’s critical is that we take advantage of the teachable moment associated with the market meltdown and the failure of some of the most prominent financial institutions in the country to help the American people know that nobody can live beyond his means forever. And that goes for government, too.
We have a new president, and therefore we have an opportunity to press the reset button, and I hope President Obama will do two things: That he will assure Americans that he will do what it takes to turn the economy around. I think it is critically important that he also focus on the future and be able to put a mechanism in place like a fiscal future commission so that once we turn the corner on the economy, we have a set of recommendations Congress and the president would be able to consider about budget controls, tax reform, entitlement reform—things that are clear and compelling that we need to act on.
Individuals need to understand that the government has overpromised and under-delivered for far too long. It is going to have to engage in some dramatic and fundamental reform of existing entitlement programs, spending policies and tax policies. The government will be there to provide a safety net through Social Security, a foundation of retirement security, and it will be there to help those that are in need. In general, most individuals are going to have to assume more responsibility for their own financial future, and the earlier they understand that the better off they are going to be. They need to have a financial plan, a budget, make prudent use of debt, save, invest their savings for specified purposes and, very importantly, preserve their savings for the intended purpose, including retirement income.
I believe the government policies are going to have to encourage people to work longer by increasing the eligibility ages for many government programs. So if people want to retire at an earlier age, they are going to have to plan, save, invest and preserve those savings for retirement purposes.
JofA: You’ve called the current U.S. health care system unsustainable. How can the system be fixed without negatively affecting the care Americans need?
Walker: Our current health care system is not really a system. It’s an amalgamation of a bunch of different things that have occurred over the years, and it’s unacceptable and unsustainable. We spend twice per capita what any other country on the Earth does. We have the highest uninsured population of any industrialized nation. We have below average health care outcomes. So the value of the equation just does not compute.
We are going to need to do two things on health care. We are going to need to take some steps quickly to reduce the rate of increase in health care cost. We are also going to have to better target taxpayer subsidies and tax preferences for health care.
We are also going to end up needing to move toward trying to achieve comprehensive health care reform that accomplishes four key goals. First: achieve universal coverage for basic and essential health care—based on broad-based societal needs, not unlimited individual wants—that’s affordable and sustainable over time and that avoids taxpayer-funded heroic measures. Secondly, the federal government has to have a budget for health care. We are the only nation on Earth dumb enough to write a blank check for health care. It could bankrupt the country. We have to have constraints. Thirdly, we need national evidence-based practice standards for the practice of medicine and for the issuance of prescription drugs to improve consistency, enhance quality, reduce costs and dramatically reduce litigation risks. And last, but certainly not least, we have to require personal responsibility and accountability for our own health and wellness in a whole range of areas including obesity.
JofA: What drives you?
Walker: My family has been in this country since the 1680s, and I have ancestors who fought and died in the American Revolution. So I care very deeply about this country, and I am a big history buff. I believe you need to study history in order to learn from it in order not to make some of the same mistakes that others have made in the past.
Secondly, I am only the second person in my direct Walker line to graduate from college. My dad was the first. Therefore, I am somewhat of an example of what someone can accomplish in this great country if you get an education, if you have a positive attitude, if you work hard, if you have good morals and ethical values.
My personal mission in life is to be able to make a difference, to try and make a difference in the lives of others, to try and help make sure our country stays strong, that the American dream stays alive, and that the future will be better for my children and my grandchildren.