Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: Tom Coburn's 'The Debt Bomb'

In The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan To Stop Washington From Bankrupting America, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) explains how Washington's career politicians, staffers, and lobbyists have set the nation up for fiscal failure.  Pulling few punches, Coburn targets sacred cows of each party and explains that rather than being in gridlock (as the media claims is the case), Congress has spent the last several decades (and especially the last 15 years) working to expand influence and re-election capabilities regardless of party.

Opening with a story about how America's rising debt could cause first a financial, and then a military crisis by 2020, Coburn reminds readers that this country is only as powerful as its finances will allow it to be.  In this fictional-but-likely future, foreign investors decide in 2014 that America is no longer a viable financial investment.  Over a span of days, this new consensus works its way into the value of the dollar, sinking it by 50% and increasing inflation.  Riots become widespread, the National Guard is deployed, and the G-20 meets to tell the U.S. that tax rates will double, retirement ages will leap precipitously, and means-testing will be the order of the day on benefits.  Finally, in 2019 -- two years after employment finally drops from 24% -- China invades Taiwan and informs the U.S. that if we stop the invasion, the U.S. will lose both financially (as China dumps our debt) and militarily (as both nations perhaps engage in a nuclear exchange).

Unlike other authors, Coburn takes on the debt from a series of critical angles, not just partisan ones.  This is done in a way that breaks through the fog of D.C.-speak and explains in plain terms the corruption all too present in Washington.  The impacts of the debt on the unemployment rate, national security, retirement, social welfare, personal freedom, tax rates, energy reform, and morality each have portions of chapters (in some cases, whole chapters) dedicated to them.  Additionally, Coburn aims to show just how much smaller government could be if we just eliminated fraud/waste/abuse/duplicity from the federal much as one-third, or over $1 trillion per year (nearly $3,900 for every American every year).  If nothing else, the disgust readers should have for their elected politicians is a victory in and of itself, and it should lead to a successive series of efforts by voters to term-limit members of Congress.

The most important reforms Coburn addresses are those related to duplication/oversight, military spending, taxes, and entitlements.  With an envious lack of ego, Coburn looks at the problem from the perspective of an outsider involved in the process rather than as an elitist insider who knows all the answers.  Does the senator have answers?  Yes.  Does he think his are the only ones?  Absolutely not.  While his own oversight reports and Back in Black solutions are regularly mentioned both in chapters and in an addendum, Coburn praises Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), among others, for truly working to find a way to defuse our debt bomb.

The inside baseball Coburn exposes should embarrass both members and their constituents.  Earmarks, personal discussions, and careerism are all brought to the fore, but nothing is more "inside baseball" than the debate that took place leading up to the debt ceiling compromise last August.  The utter dysfunction of Congress is laid bare in Coburn's descriptions of what happened.  Meeting after meeting and discussion after discussion led to a deal that not only didn't cut spending, but actually grew spending by $2 trillion over ten years...and still left our nation's credit rating downgraded.

(click "read more" for the rest of this review)

In the final pages of the book, Coburn writes the about "the left's counterfeit compassion."  Accurately, Coburn notes:
[W]e hear a lot of talk about caring for the poor but very little evidence that the policies they espouse are working. In fact, the evidence shows government is harming the poor more than helping. Imagine, for instance, if a conservative proposed a Medicaid reform that would result in 40 percent of doctors not seeing Medicaid patients, and 65 percent of specialists denying care to Medicaid patients. And then imagine if this same reform would cause Medicare patients to be rejected at a rate higher than that of private insurance. Finally, imagine if this reform idea would cause the bankruptcy of Medicare and the likely denial of benefits in five years.
These are all actual policy realities and are a direct result of the left's "compassion" for the poor.  As Coburn has often pointed out in other mediums, it is better to dictate spending and other reforms internally rather than have drastic changes dictated by external forces, as is the case with Greece. 

Like any book, this effort has its flaws.  Impressively, only one sentence stands out as factually imprecise -- Coburn says on Page 211 that the payroll tax holiday now in its second year "is cannibalizing" Social Security.  However, the holiday law is written so that the impact on the life of Social Security is canceled out with deficit transfer payments from the Treasury, so the size of the Social Security Trust Fund is left unaffected.

(Note: In a series of e-mail exchanges, The Debt Bomb co-author and Coburn Press Secretary John Hart disagreed with my assessment of the tax holiday's effect on the Social Security Trust Fund, though he did not dispute that general fund transfers are taking place.  Hart pointed out that a number of economists, columnists, and others from across the political spectrum believe that the payroll tax holiday will change how Social Security's funding is both considered and applied in the future.  While this is certainly a defensible contention, this is technically separate from how the funding for the payroll tax holiday law was applied in 2011 and will be applied in 2012.)

Additionally, while he rightly goes after inflation as theft and the Wall Street crisis as both a government policy failure and a failure of morality, Coburn spends too little time on the Federal Reserve's impact on our debt and no time on the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), for which Coburn himself voted.  (Note: In a phone conversation, Hart explained that Dr. Coburn did not want the book to be about him and his voting record, but instead about the debt problem the nation faces.  Hart noted that Coburn is open to answering questions about his vote for TARP, something I noticed personally last year when the senator not only answered my question about his vote for TARP, but also said in a follow-up discussion that if he "couldn't defend" that vote, he didn't belong on Capitol Hill.)

Two other notable critiques: several chapters get lost in the myriad of examples of fake partisanship, fraud, and dishonesty in Congress.  While these examples are important, and should disgust Americans, they also divert the reader's attention from the larger point of the chapters.

The other concern with this book is its language regarding how Coburn balances separating the person from the politician.  On the one hand, he is blunt in denouncing corruption, careerism, and those who sustain the fiscal status quo; calls many politicians "double-minded"; and in fact targets a number of politicians and special interest leaders in both parties by name (such as ATR's Grover Norquist, FreedomWorks' Dick Armey, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid [D-NV]).  However, Coburn also says, "Everyone in Washington wants to do the right thing."  Coburn is a master of holding to principle while still working with members of all political stripes in a gentlemanly manner -- though he is also not one to mince words, especially in this book -- but it was difficult to discern how Coburn could hold any respect for those members of Congress who are being "double-minded" and are working purposely for re-election instead of for the benefit of the nation.

All in all, The Debt Bomb is an invaluable addition to the public debate.  Doctor and Senator Tom Coburn is one of the few members of Congress who both knows the severity of the debt problem the nation faces and is willing to risk his reputation to fix it.  Be it via highlighting fraudulent spending in Medicare, Defense Department corruption, or how Congress would rather add more costly programs for election reasons than make existing programs more efficient, nobody is safe in this book.  This includes the voting electorate, which is often ignored in media portrayals of Beltway Bubble battles.

While Coburn largely praises voters for seeing through the Beltway Bubble in recent years when it comes to the Tea Party, earmarking, and entitlement reform, he also lays responsibility on our shoulders in the form of holding elected officials responsible for their actions, and for enacting term limits through the ballot box.  After all, careerism -- which Coburn says is the core reason for Washington's unconstitutional expansions of power and influence -- can be truly defeated only by an educated electorate.  Above all else, that is the goal of this book: to end careerism, bring the federal government back to within the limits of the Constitution, and slash spending.  Unlike other politicians, Coburn's intent is not to hold onto power, but instead to see America avoid the fate of Rome, Napoleonic France, the USSR, and other great powers that collapsed not due to a lack of military might, but instead because of a failure of fiscal responsibility.

(Originally posted at American Thinker)


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