Alan Simpson

By Clift, Eleanor | Newsweek, January 3, 2011 | Go to article overview

Alan Simpson


Clift, Eleanor, Newsweek


Byline: Eleanor Clift

As co-leader of the deficit commission, he aimed to slay the national debt. He failed--not for want of trying.

First of all, I want to know your reaction to the tax deal that's before the Congress. It doesn't have too many elements of deficit reduction.

It's a great disappointment, a tremendous disappointment, because --what is it, $858 billion in two years added to the deficit? I mean, that just breaks your heart. What the hell do you think we've been talking about? Whether you're for [or against] anything that the commission did, what the hell have we been talking about?

One of the points you've made is that when or if financial collapse comes, it'll happen very quickly, which is why we need to get ready--we can't wait until it starts happening to reform the system.

The Chinese have already reduced our credit just a shade. I can't remember if it went from +AA to whatever, but the rating game is different in every country. The point is, if they look at the United States, [they might] say, "Look, everybody has been saying for these last months and years that this country has an unsustainable debt, the deficit is rising, interest payments will be $1 trillion in the year 2020, whatever the figure was, and they have done nothing; they have chickened out; they have failed to address it in any way and therefore, we ain't sticking our money in there anymore, and we want some of ours out." And then it will be precipitous. It won't be six months, might not even be six weeks. It might be six days when they suddenly start the flight. And I know how bankers are: once the flight starts, and the money and the rumors, it'll be fast and difficult.

Can you imagine this happening within the next year? Five years? Do you have any kind of time frame?

We don't know the tipping point. But the tipping point will come if you fail to address the long-term problem of debt, deficit, and interest. And we won't be able to define it, but our creditors sure as hell will.

You said dealing with Congress on this was like feeding a banana to the gorilla in the zoo.

It's the same thing I've done for years, just got my foot right in it. We threw this big banana into the gorilla cage and they're going to pick it up, play with it, mash it, but they're gonna eat some of it. They can't avoid eating some of it because of where they're headed.

So this is the beginning of the gorillas mashing the banana and it'll take a while, but that's how Congress operates.

Mmm, mmm. And it's an indigestible lump. This is a stink bomb thrown into the garden party, and it ain't going out. And they can shovel it off, they can bury it, and it will come back to life because the left and the right extremes are frightened to death about it.

When we last spoke, you said you were on a suicide mission. I think you did pretty well: you got 11 out of 18 votes [on the commission].

Well the Senate runs on 60 percent, so we got 60 percent. [There was some] early scrapping, which was: "Who's the biggest-spending president in the history of the United States?" "Well, George W. Bush, that's who." "Well, yeah, but now your guy, he's outpaced him 3 to 1." And finally [commission co-chair] Erskine [Bowles] and I and [Honeywell CEO] David Cote said, "Knock it off. I don't want to listen to any more of this." So Erskine and I finally decided, at this stage of life, with whatever reputation, ragged or not, or integrity or whatever, we aren't going to just walk away and do the usual mush. So as we visited with the others one on one, they said, "What are you guys gonna do [without the necessary votes for a tough report]?" We said, "You do anything you want to, but we're not going to walk away from it and just leave the American people dealing with a bunch of porridge. …

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