RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And we've been getting a little help this week explaining America's growing debt from Charles Dickens. We've hard about the ghosts of the past that shaped the debt and the partisan spirits of the present that locked the debt in place. Today, the president's fiscal commission continues its final round of meetings that may or may not produce a plan to cut the national debt. And NPR's John Ydstie and Scott Horsley have two alternative visions of the country's fiscal future.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Christmas Carol)
Unidentified Man (Actor): (As Ebenezer Scrooge) You are the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. You will show me the shadows of things that have not happened but will happen in the time before us. Ghost of the Future, I fear you more than any specter I've seen.
JOHN YDSTIE: The budget watchdogs who have been trying to scare us about the nation's debt have a pretty good idea of how this ghost story ends. What they don't know is when.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Robert Reischauer, who used to head the Congressional Budget Office, says the crisis could come in 18 months or 18 years. Either way, he finds it frightening.
Mr. ROBERT REISCHAUER (Former head, Congressional Budget Office): When countries get into trouble, the waters are relatively calm until the wind comes up. The wind comes up very rapidly, the storm develops, and the ship sinks a few days later.
YDSTIE: Former Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs the president's fiscal commission, told a similar tale at a breakfast organized by the Christian Science Monitor. He said debt troubles, when they come, tend to strike suddenly.
Senator ALAN SIMPSON: It won't be the old slippery slope crap that we read about. It'll be very swift and very dramatic, like in Greece or Ireland or Portugal or Spain, or wherever. I don't know where this is going, but I tell you, it won't take long. It will be...
(Soundbite of whistling)
HORSLEY: That's the sound of lenders suddenly losing patience with a federal government that's been spending beyond its means. Interest rates for the government and other borrowers would rise.
YDSTIE: And that means it would be harder to find loans to buy a house, run a business or send a kid to college. Reischauer says the scariest moment would come when the U.S. has to look to other countries for a rescue.
Mr. REISCHAUER: How will we feel when the IMF comes to us and says to provide this loan to you, we want to see your taxes go up by a quarter? We want you to cap your entitlement spending. We want you to shave your defense budget? That will go down very hard in the United States.
HORSLEY: Like a family maxed out on credit cards, ducking calls from bill collectors, the government would have to spend more and more of its budget just paying interest on the debt. There'd be nothing left over for extras or investments in long-range opportunities. That's the frightening picture of a deadbeat nation.
(Soundbite of movie, "A Christmas Carol")
Unidentified Man: (as Ebenezer Scrooge) Are these shadows of things that will be? Or are they shadows of things that may be only? Hm?
YDSTIE: Ah. Now, that's the good news, because like Scrooge, we're getting a timely wake-up call and a chance to change our ways. There is an alternate ending to this story, in which the members of the president's fiscal commission actually agree on a debt-cutting plan.
HORSLEY: And in a surprise twist, Congress goes along. Lawmakers cut spending, including defense and future Social Security payments. And they increase tax revenues, not by raising rates, but by eliminating some popular deductions -some very popular deductions.
YDSTIE: Now, of course, none of this happens right away. The recovery is too fragile for any sudden changes. But Reischauer says the country would benefit just by having a plan in place to cut the debt to a manageable size.
Mr. REISCHAUER: There would be probably a big boost of confidence in world markets. There would be a sense of vitality in the U.S. economy.
HORSLEY: And with a lighter burden for interest payments, the government would have more money to invest in productive areas like education or infrastructure.
YDSTIE: Diane Lim Rogers, who writes the blog EconomistMom.com, says countries, like households, are better off when their budget is under control.
Dr. DIANE LIM ROGERS (EconomistMom.com): When you don't max out on your credit limit, you do have the capacity to borrow for when you really do need it -natural disasters, wars, economic downturns.
HORSLEY: This happy ending to our debt story might seem farfetched, given today's polarized political climate. But Rogers reminds us we have seen this kind of budget compromise before, as recently as the 1990s.
Dr. ROGERS: And that didn't come easy. And people were afraid of this prospect of raising taxes and cutting spending. But what we learned from that is that when the government saves more, then our country as a whole saves more. That contributed to a strongly growing economy.
YDSTIE: So far, lawmakers have shown more fear than faith. So it will be up to the public to decide whether heading off a future debt crunch is worth some tough choices now.
YDSTIE: Or if they simply want to say bah, humbug.
I'm John Ydstie.
HORSLEY: And I'm Scott Horsley, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
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