Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility, David M. Walker,

Random House (2010).

 

The core message of Comeback America is that the government must get its fiscal house in order or this country is headed for a big fall.  Probably most people agree intellectually, but prefer not to think about such matters.  After all, the enjoyment of government deficits is in the here and now, while the day of reckoning is perceived to be years in the future.  Sounds like someone else’s problem. 

 

As Walker points out, however, the victims of continuing fiscal irresponsibility include innocent souls who are near and dear.  Thus, to rephrase an old Washington saying, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that baby on your knee.”  Consuming now and leaving the bill for future generations is not simply irresponsible; it is immoral.  Moreover, the roar of the waterfall ahead is getting steadily louder as the ship of state glides downstream.

 

The deficit problem has two dimensions, as this book clearly explains.  The current deficits and debt are bad enough, marking steady deterioration in the government’s fiscal position over the past decade and exacerbated by the current recession.  The long-term fiscal gap, fed by a steady increase in “entitlement” outlays (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid), is worse.  As of 9/30/09, the government (and by extension this country) was in a fiscal hole of some $63 trillion, a total of liabilities and unfunded promises so vast that it is hard to comprehend, which was “rising every second of every day.”

 

Do not doubt these numbers, by the way.  Walker is a CPA by training, formerly served as the U.S. Comptroller General (among other positions), and knows whereof he speaks.

 

This is hardly the first book to warn that the United States is on the road to financial disaster.  See, e.g., “Financial Reckoning Day,” Bonner & Wiggin, 2003, or “The Coming Generational Storm,” Kotlikoff & Burns, 2004.

But the author’s conviction that the American people must and can take action to avert the disaster is refreshing, and he offers some specific ideas for doing just that.  Among them is appointing a Fiscal Future Commission, which would be empowered to propose sweeping changes in spending, entitlements and taxes that Congress would be committed to accept on an up or down vote.

 

The narrative of how the fiscal problem developed may be a little hard on Bush 43, and a Republican-controlled Congress contributed to the fiscal gains during the Clinton years.  The commentary on President Obama’s fiscal track record thus far seems optimistic, although Walker does note a possible gap between words and actions.  Forget all that, however, because both parties contributed to the problem and playing the blame game can solve nothing.

 

Specific ideas are offered for revamping Social Security, overhauling the healthcare system (instituting new programs without fixing Medicare and Medicaid is no answer), raising taxes but also making them simpler and fairer, reducing the trade deficit, getting control of the Pentagon, and transforming government. Most people will differ with some of the ideas, but remember that they are suggestions rather than “must do’s.”  If the American people start thinking seriously about what kind of government they want and are willing to pay for, we should all be able to live with the results.

 

Maybe this sounds a bit boring.  “When you picked up this book,” Walker observes in the epilogue, “you knew you weren’t buying a light read for the beach – or a typical Washington tell-all full of espionage, sex scandals, war planning, and gladiators jousting in the political arena.”

 

But we recommend that people read and reflect on Comeback America, and then act on the author’s invitation to “put this book down, fellow citizens” and “let’s get to work.”