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Erskine Bowles, Johnny Isakson, Sam Nunn — three wise men say now is the time to fix our fiscal problems

By Maria Saporta

Three wise men were in Atlanta Thursday at three separate events singing from the same fiscally-responsible hymnal.

Erskine Bowles, co-chair of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, was the keynote speaker at breakfast of the 3rd annual national conference of Purpose Built Communities, started by developer Tom Cousins and run by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Recently, Bowles is best known for his role with the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which is seeking a bipartisan solution to reduce the national debt. The commission was repeatedly mentioned during Wednesday night’s presidential debate, with both Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama heralding the initiative but neither fully embracing it.

The second wise man is U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), who spoke at the Atlanta Press Club Newsmaker luncheon. Isakson used the occasion to fully endorse the efforts of his colleague — U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Georgia), who has become a leader through the Gang of Six or Gang of Eight in trying to get the Senate to adopt the Simpson-Bowles recommendations.

And the third wise man is former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, who was in town to speak at a breakfast at King & Spalding, about the same issues of fiscal responsibility with former U.S. Comptroller Dave Walker. In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Nunn tied it all together.

“A lot of this is converging now,” said Nunn, who has joined together with Bowles to get people to sign on to a national petition at www.fixthedebt.org. “I think I’m calling it creeping candor.”

The three men all talked about the fiscal cliff that is facing the country on Dec. 31 — when a host of different tax hikes and across-the-board budget cuts are scheduled to go into effect — a cascading series of actions that could send the country into a depression or could set the country back on a path of recovery and global competitiveness.

But the three men also agreed that little is likely to happen until after the Nov. 6 election. In fact, the greatest hope they have is that the lame-duck Congress and the President (and/or President-elect) will show the courage, leadership and fortitude to act.

But until then, Nunn said that both Romney and Obama are “trying so hard to stay away from the third rail” of each of their parties’ positions. For the Democrats, its trying to avoid changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; and the Republicans, it’s the slightest mention of taxes or new revenues.

“Both are saying good things about Simpson-Bowles, but it’s like a sign I saw: ‘Lord make me pure, but not just yet,’” Nunn said. “But in the lame-duck session, I think there’s a real opportunity for leaders like Saxby Chambliss to substitute something (in lieu of the fiscal cliff actions) like Simpson-Bowles. I think Saxby and Johnny (Isakson) are taking a real leadership role in this.”

At the breakfast, Bowles provided encouraging words about the possibility that the lame-duck Congress would actually begin to address the nation’s debt and deal with its fiscal issues.

The Simpson-Bowles Commission produced a 64-page report called “The Moment of Truth” that stated in plain English all their recommendations.

“That’s now been put into legislative language, and it’s now 650 pages,” said Bowles, admitted that the drafted legislation as written is much harder to understand. “We now have about 47 members of the Senate who have endorsed it. We are making big progress with little to no leadership from Congress and the administration.”

Isakson also was cautiously optimistic saying that he believed the number of Senators supporting the legislation likely could hit the magic number of 60 (enough to avoid a filibuster) after the election. That would open the door of actually getting something done.

Bowles said he believed that there could be as many as 67 votes in the Senate during the lame-duck Congress that would be willing to “take our recommendations and adopt the framework of this plan…”

That would provide enough clarity to financial markets to prevent the nation from economic instability and a downward spiral.

He quoted Ernst Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics, from a century ago: “We are running out of money. We’ve got to start thinking.”

Then Bowles put his own spin on it: “If we do, the future of this country is very, very bright. If we don’t, we are well on our way to becoming a second-rate power.”

Note to readers: Stay tuned for more words of wisdom from these three men in a follow-up story.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. JJJZZZ October 5, 2012 1:43 pm

    I’m sorry, but these men are anything but wise.  As unemployment remains between 8 and 15% (depending on how measured), this is certainly NOT the time to place deficit reduction at the top of the country’s list of priorities.  Trying to balance the federal budget at this time would surely bring on a new recession or worse.  In fact the ONLY way that the deficits will eventually be brought down is through first growing the economy by increasing demand.Report

  2. nanaof3 October 5, 2012 9:41 pm

    Trying to solve fiscal woes by growing the economy/increasing consumption is beating a dead horse.  Talk about anything but wise, that may have passed for wisdom 50 years ago, but look around you now at the disruption caused by the pursuit of endless growth.  In nature, only cancer grows without stopping.  We have reached & over-shot the limits to growth, as ably demonstrated by Dennis & Donella Meadows in the book by the same title years ago, not to mention the point of diminishing returns where more is less.  WE really need to out-grow, if you will, that cliche.  We can & must find new ways to meet needs & express creativity without mindless, limitless growth.Report

    1. JJJZZZ October 5, 2012 10:21 pm

      I can’t disagree with what you say.  I do think that your comment addresses a different problem than what is reported in the above article.  I’m happy to replace “growth” with “development” in the sense that Herman Daly uses that term in most of his publications in the field of ecological economics.  That said, it remains true that with the economy in its present state, this is absolutely not the time to be balancing the federal budget (through just about any combination of spending cuts or tax increases), as long as we have so many unemployed.  It’s time for directed and sustained investment (by the public sector) in a variety of infrastructure and human capital areas, including strong ones in alternative energy, transit, conservation, power grid, etc.  Also much more important in our present economy is the severe and growing stratification of wealth and income.  The latter has profound implications for the future and very survival  of our democracy.Report

    2. Burroughston Broch October 5, 2012 11:27 pm

      You almost got to the big question in your last sentence. Here it is: As population and productivity grow, there will not be enough jobs. How can we order society so people without jobs can support themselves?
      We may be seeing the beginnings of this situation now, and neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney want to acknowledge it. They both say they will restore jobs, but I despair of the jobs ever coming back. As a further symptom, look at our low labor participation rate and the vast number of people who have dropped out of the job hunt and don’t show up in the unemployment percentage. The real unemployment rate is closer to 16%, not the 7.8% portrayed by the Labor Department.
      I don’t have a solution, but I know that Mr. Obama’s vision of a European-style social democracy is not a solution. The Europeans are backing away from that precipice because it has bankrupted them. At the same time, Mr. Obama wants to lead us toward the same precipice, but wants to bankrupt us BEFORE we get there. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, socialism ends when you run out of someone else’s money to spend.Report

      1. JJJZZZ October 6, 2012 1:27 am

        @Burroughston Broch I’d say, contrariwise, that Thatcherism would be the end of democracy and would bring such a plutocratic system (we have been on our way there for 35 years) that we’d have civil war.  You can’t just let a small cadre of the hugely wealthy tighten their grip on society, law, economy, politics, media, etc.  If anything, Obama (as well as his several predecessors) is hastening the dismantling of the remaining shreds of safety net that we had for a couple of generations.Report


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