David Walker, the prophet of deficit doom, and his sermon to save America
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
IN ATLANTA "I have a lot of nicknames," David M. Walker says.
"Paul Revere! Paul Revere. That's what Paul Volcker calls me," Walker declares, dropping the name of the inflation-slaying 1980s Fed chief.
"Fiscal Ranger," he goes on. "That's what CNBC calls me."
"And when I was on Colbert," Walker says, "he called me, 'Walker, Taxes Ranger.' "
Yuk-yukking commences in the pack milling around Walker in the hallway of Georgia Public Broadcasting's studios, where they've just finished taping an appearance on a public affairs program. This - to belabor the theme - is Walker's posse, a merry bunch of deficit hawks spreading their message of impending empire-cratering, quality-of-life-destroying, retirement-obliterating, future-generation-imperiling, America-as-we-know-it-erasing doom.
Charts they've got, and sheaves of statistical projections capable of paralyzing the most nimble mind. Walker, numbers man that he is, can tell you without hesitation that he's spoken to audiences in 47 states about the evils of America's yawning (pun intended) federal budget deficit and garishly ascendant national debt. North Dakota, South Dakota and Alaska have so far missed out (or been spared, depending on your perspective), but Walker's working on getting to each of them, hopeful of accumulating a full set of these united states.
A few years back, Walker and his friends skittered around the nation on something they called a Fiscal Wake-Up Tour; now they're back with the Fiscal Solutions Tour, sort of a number-nerd's version of a rock-and-roll reunion road show - without the groupies, sex or drugs, that is.
The cast rotates, but on this day in Atlanta, most of the core group is on hand. There's Joe Antos, the impish American Enterprise Institute scholar who tells one of their audiences that "not everybody's going to love numbers like we do." By his side is Robert Bixby, the sallow-cheeked executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nocturnal being who seems to subsist primarily on cigars, bananas and oceanic quantities of the soft drink Tab. And then there's Alice Rivlin, the 80-year-old Brookings Institution fixture who recently served on President Obama's debt commission and has held so many government posts that she sometimes asks to have the word "former" removed from a few of them when she's being introduced.
"It annoys me," Rivlin grumbles. "It sounds like I'm unemployed."
But that word - "former"- is part of what gives this crew its bona fides. Rivlin, after all, is - among many other things - the former director of the Congressional Budget Office, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, the former vice chairman of the Federal Reserve. Walker is the former comptroller general of the United States, a 15-year appointment at once arcane and ultra-exclusive - only eight humans can say they've served in the post, and Walker was the seventh. (Pop quiz: Can you name the current comptroller general? Didn't think so.)
The Former-Fill-in-the-Blank, indeed, might be Washington's biggest manufactured product. At a time when there's much understandable distress about America not making anything anymore, Washington churns out pallet-loads of Formers. Let no one say the capital isn't producing. When it comes to building Formers, Washington operates with assembly-line efficiency. And not just on four-year cycles, but frequently on two-year timetables, with the routine midterm exodus of Capitol Hill used-to-bes, as well as the usual gusher at the White House, where gross domestic former-official production has been bolstered lately by first lady Michelle Obama's habit of churning through social secretaries.
Government types skip away from their Cabinet posts or their directorships or their undersecretaryships of this or that with a kind of cred that no university degree can impart. Their routes are varied - there's the buckets-of-cash path, think Tom Daschle with his multimillion-dollar consulting gigs and chauffeur-driven car. But there's also the evangelizing route: the Former-With-a-Message.