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David Walker, the prophet of deficit doom, and his sermon to save America

Pecuniary posse: Alice Rivlin, Joe Antos, David Walker and Robert Bixby are bringing their message of spending-reduction and tax-increase to the public in a cross-country tour.
Pecuniary posse: Alice Rivlin, Joe Antos, David Walker and Robert Bixby are bringing their message of spending-reduction and tax-increase to the public in a cross-country tour. (Pouya Dianat)

The house, like almost everything in Walker's life, serves as a talking point for his dawn-to-dusk tutorials. Walker styles himself as a champion of fiscal discipline, nudging the nation to minimize debt.

So, "practicing what I preach," he says, he has no mortgage on the home in Mount Vernon, where he lived while he was comptroller general. He's selling the house, he says, and will use the proceeds to pay off the mortgage he took out to buy Shays's house in Bridgeport, the headquarters of his Comeback America Initiative, named after his book: "Comeback America: Turning the Country Around and Restoring Fiscal Responsibility." Once again, he'll be mortgage-free. (Walker, who splits time between Bridgeport and Washington, also owns a mortgage-free townhouse in Alexandria.)

Until recently, Walker completed his tax forms by hand, without the aid of a computer program, an exercise bordering on self-flagellation, even for a CPA such as himself. He calls tax preparation day "the worst time of the year" at his house; his wife, Mary, is in charge of collecting receipts, and "the process never works - how shall I put it? - smoothly," Walker wrote in "Comeback America." But doing so gave him another talking point. As comptroller general, Walker urged his staff to prepare their own taxes.

Walker eventually broke down and hired an accountant when his return became complicated by the fact that he worked in multiple states in a single year. This year, he'll also seek help because of complications presented by the sweeteners he got to make up for his loss of a government pension. (Walker makes around $300,000 running Comeback - a tasty jump from his government paycheck, but that's far less than the mega-bump many Formers enjoy. He also covers half his salary by funneling his speaking fees and royalties to the organization.)

Like Walker, Peterson is a Former. Peterson - who became one of America's wealthiest men in 2007 after the initial public offering of his investment firm, the Blackstone Group - served as commerce secretary for a year during the Nixon administration.

Peterson has pledged $1 billion of his money to untangling fiscal-sustainability issues, such as the deficit, entitlement programs and tax policy.

"I would be the first to admit there is far from a consensus on what to do about it," he says on the phone one afternoon. Peterson's money fuels not only his foundation, which Walker led for nearly three years, but also Walker's Comeback America Initiative, which launched last month.

The former commerce secretary also is a primary bankroller of the Concord Coalition, the stalwart budget-hawk group headed by Walker's indefatigable pal, Bixby. All told, the Peterson foundation is supporting at least 20 active programs, a spokeswoman says.

Peterson's patronage of a nationwide conversation about the deficit and the debt seems to be only in its infancy - and it remains to be seen whether it will translate into government action. There have been a bevy of commissions musing about the debt and the deficit, but in Washington, just because a commission (or billionaire, for that matter) recommends something doesn't mean it'll happen.

At this point, Peterson has spent $50 million on programs and on operating his foundation, according to the spokeswoman. That leaves $950 million to spend on all sorts of obsessions, from deficits and debts to health-care costs, the Pentagon's budget and on and on. One wonders how long it would take to spend all that money. "I haven't any idea," Peterson says, "how long it's going to take."

Always on message

Walker almost never checks a bag - waiting for the baggage carousel isn't an economical use of time. Streamlining travel headaches is why Walker and his wife favor cruises for vacations - they've been on 21, he says. "You only have to unpack your bag once," he points out.

In Atlanta's airport, Walker passes a Georgia lottery booth. "That's some people's retirement plans," he zings. Always on message.


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