Unsustainable Tab

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Last Friday we got the sad news that Coca-Cola would stop making TaB, its venerable diet cola that had been around since 1963. 

Ironically, that same day, we also got some news about a very different kind of tab. According to the Treasury Department, the federal budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2020 amounted to $3.1 trillion and the total federal debt was just under $27 trillion. 

As a loyal TaB drinker for more years than I care to remember, the news of its demise hit hard. Moreover, it got me thinking that there might be a disturbing lesson here about that other tab. 

The soft drink was discontinued because the public had largely lost interest in it. So what happens if the public loses interest in the federal budget tab? Well, it won’t be discontinued. The absence of public concern would simply give politicians a free pass to allow the debt to keep growing at an unsustainable rate, eventually harming economic growth and limiting the opportunities and policy priorities of future generations.

TaB is gone. There is nothing its small but loyal following can do about it. The federal tab, however, is a different matter. It’s still around and there is something we can do about it.

At The Concord Coalition, we believe, and our experience as an organization has shown, that when Americans are given non-partisan, straightforward information about the nation’s fiscal future, they understand the need to make budgetary tradeoffs and will push their representatives to make hard choices to set the nation on a sustainable fiscal path. That is why we work around the country educating, engaging, and empowering citizens to take action.

As former Comptroller of the United States, David M. Walker, puts it in his new book, America in 2040: Still A Superpower? “Make no mistake, the morning sky is ‘red’ and our Ship of State, the USS United States, is taking on water. We must make tough choices and change course to steer her safely back to port. In the final analysis it is ‘We the People’ who must become informed and involved in order to ensure the vitality and sustainability of our republic. We are responsible for what our elected officials do, or fail to do, to save our ship.”

For the near-term, defeating the COVID-19 pandemic is the number one priority. The budget will not recover until the economy recovers and the economy will not recover until we get the pandemic under control. It is not too soon, however, to begin thinking about the hard work that will need to be done to build a strong post-pandemic economy. 

In that regard, here are some key points that policymakers should agree on before entering negotiations. 

  • Current fiscal policy is unsustainable.

  • There are no easy solutions, such as cutting waste, fraud, and abuse or growing our way out of the problem. 

  • Finding solutions will require bipartisan cooperation and a willingness to discuss all options without preconditions.

  • Public engagement and understanding is vital in finding solutions.

  • This is not about numbers. It is a matter of generational responsibility.

So in honor of TaB, let’s all resolve to keep tabs on the federal budget deficit and debt. If we don’t, we may wake up someday and find that our indifference has led us into a downward spiral from which there is no recovery.


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