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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)

Bixby joins him at their first Atlanta stop - a Kiwanis luncheon - in a suit but with a pair of rumpled jeans cradled in his arms, along with a tangled nest of papers and files - "I always travel in jeans," he says.

Walker tells the audience that America is "driving toward a cliff," and Rivlin touts the so-called Domenici-Rivlin commission solution - named for her and former New Mexico Republican senator Pete Domenici - which calls for spending cuts and imposing a national sales tax to reduce the deficit. "I think it's nifty," Rivlin says.

After the speeches, Kiwanis members cluster around the stage to meet Walker and Rivlin. "She's hot," Bixby says.

Talking about fixing problems is more complicated and nuanced than pointing out that there is a problem. The federal debt is one giant number that an audience can easily grasp; but a talk about finding a way out of deficits and lowering the debt can leave audiences with an impression of something that looks more like a bowl of spaghetti than a straight line.

Walker wants many things, but in the simplest terms, he wants this: less spending and more equitably collected taxes. "Those who make more and those who have more should pay more," he says on the phone one afternoon. Now, there's more to it than that - spending cuts, for instance, play three times as large a role in his ideal world as tax increases, he says. And nothing can be done in isolation.

He wants the poor to get more Social Security and the rich to get less. Eventually, he'd like some kind of a consumption tax, such as a sales tax or a value-added tax, but not before federal budget controls have been put in place, entitlement programs have been tweaked and the Pentagon's spending has been brought under control. He runs through some of the list with Rivlin in the van and rapid-fires plans for his new organization: "It sounds like you're really into it," she says.

Later, in the makeup room at Georgia Public Broadcasting, Walker assures the stylist that "some of us don't have hair to worry about." Antos rises from the chair and considers his own glorious baldness. "I'm a lot less shiny than I was a few minutes ago," he announces.

The conversation, as always, is about deficits and debt, spending and cutting. Rivlin grouses about a blog post written by an academic she calls "a deficit denier." The source of her irritation turns out to be James K. Galbraith, an economist at the University of Texas who also happens to be the son of the famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

In a phone interview, James Galbraith calls the various Peterson-funded organizations that are involved in the solutions roadshows "fronts" and accuses the billionaire of an "ulterior motive" to cut entitlement programs. The arguments being made by Walker, Rivlin and other "deficit worriers" are "tired and shabby," Galbraith wrote in a piece titled "Deficit Hawks Down."

Walker and Rivlin discuss Galbraith's posting while law-enforcement cruisers block intersections for them on the way to their final appearance at the new health science building at Kennesaw State University. Inside the building's VIP lounge, a university vice president, Wes Wicker, boasts about the building's "physical assessment rooms that look just like emergency rooms."

Walker chimes in. "Physical or fiscal?"

Wicker looks confused.

"Fiscal assessment rooms," Walker says. "They need to look like an emergency room, too."


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