I did not have an opportunity to hear Alice Rivlin's scheduled speech Saturday night in Vero Beach, but I did sit next to her at the city's Ocean Grill for dinner six years ago.
It's not every day you get to chat with a former vice chair of the Federal Reserve, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget under President Bill Clinton, and director of the Congressional Budget Office.
And sitting next to her was David Walker, former U.S. comptroller general, who has become the most noted voice to plan for the massive growth of health care costs as baby boomers' needs swamp the nation's ability to pay.
The dinner, which included representatives of liberal and conservative think tanks, was the culmination the Fiscal Wakeup Tour's visit to the Treasure Coast. It was the day when I saw a staggering, interactive chart with which every expert agreed: Even if you cut the entire defense budget, it would not impact the fiscal tsunami of Medicare and Medicaid costs the nation has payment plan for, reaching crisis stage in the 2030s.
It was a day of bipartisan agreement on the problem, though specific solutions were not often discussed.
On Tuesday, though, Walker and economist Paul Krugman, a columnist for The New York Times who advocates more federal spending to help the economy recover, found common ground in a conversation on Bloomberg News.
Each agreed the government would have to generate more revenue. Each agreed that some day in the future the term "death panel" would be part of a serious discussion on health care.
Where they disagreed was on when to solve the problems.
It's kind of funny when I review our coverage of the Fiscal Wakeup Tour's local stop. In a guest column, Harry Zeeve of the bipartisan Concord Coalition, which sponsored the tour, wrote, "Our elected leaders in Washington are currently debating budget plans amid a new consensus that balancing the budget by 2012 is an important policy goal and that long-term fiscal policy is unsustainable."
Perhaps it's sad, given the amount of money spent by and lack of budget passed by our federal leaders the past couple of years.
I wrote that "federal spending now accounts for about 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. By 2040, unless changes are made, it could make up more than 40 percent of GDP, with Medicare and Medicaid growing from about 4 percent to about 10 percent, but interest on the debt increasing from about 2 percent to almost 15 percent."
Tuesday, Walker reiterated his proposals to bolster today's economy with infrastructure spending while, at the same time, cutting wasteful programs, and addressing how to pay for Medicare and Medicaid in the future, in part, by means testing. Balancing the budget is not an option now, he said, but agreeing now on how to pay for the future is critical.
Krugman said such a solution was not realistic, as focusing on present issues is critical.
With the national debt growing by about a trillion dollars a year — projected to be $17.5 trillion by the end of this fiscal year — Walker's solution is more responsible. No one does their best work when they fail to plan.
Sadly, too many members of Congress seem content to duke it out in D.C. over little things, kick the proverbial can down the road over long-term solutions — mitigating short- and long-term recoveries.
Many people — even those in the 1 percent — I know are willing to pay more in taxes. They just want to make sure the funds are spent wisely.
The best story Rivlin told at dinner years ago regarded a conversation she had with Clinton, who had numerous programs he wanted to fund. She told him something to the effect of, "Mr. President, that sounds like a great idea, but you cannot pay for it."
He listened to her and did not implement the program.
Clinton was president the last time this nation had a balanced budget. I'm not counting on one anytime soon, but Rivlin's story reminds us that there is hope that one day fiscal reality will return in D.C.
Email: [email protected]. Twitter:@LaurenceReisman