The Real Financial Crisis Hasn't Hit Yet - Pacific Standard

The Real Financial Crisis Hasn't Hit Yet

The 'star' of a new documentary on the national debt says the deficit is still the even bigger threat to our financial house.
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Dave Walker is on a mission to promote national financial sanity. The former head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office is the unlikely movie star of the documentary I.O.U.S.A. — reviewed in the November/December issue of Miller-McCune magazine.

In the movie, Walker makes the case that America is on the brink of financial ruin if elected officials don't rein in spending, mainly on entitlements.

In an interview with Miller-McCune.com on the eve of congressional passage of the massive $700 billion economic rescue package, Walker was guarded about the legislation's potential effectiveness and called attention to the bigger looming crisis in store if Congress fails to tackle the federal government's $53 trillion debt, which comes to $455,000 per household.

"It's important for Congress and the (Bush) administration to do what it takes with the immediate crisis," he said. "However, much bigger than the subprime crisis is the brewing financial crisis."

Government involvement in the financial markets should be a "last resort," he said. "We should not put government in a position of controlling major private sector entities."

(Walker opines in greater detail about the bailout plan in a CNN.com commentary.)

President Bush has since pledged $250 billion federal investment in U.S. banks.

Walker didn't mince words in ranking White House rivals Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain's economic proposals. "Both candidates need to seriously reconsider every promise they're making," he said. "Neither has addressed the (deficit) crisis with any degree of specificity."

Walker is concerned by "the dangerous parallels between financial markets and the government. There are many lessons of the recent failures that we shouldn't avoid." Although the U.S. government is "too big to fail, if it doesn't get its act together soon, we'll face increasing pressure from foreign lenders.

"We are too reliant on foreign investors," he said, citing Asian banks specifically as major holders of our national debt through government-issued securities. "We need to get control of fiscal future or we'll have less influence in the world, less opportunity."

The debt, or "financial hole" is growing to $57 trillion as Americans' incomes have declined. It will soon "equal or exceed" the net worth of all Americans combined, he said.

Major causes of the "hole" is the rising costs of Medicare and other entitlement programs as baby boomers approach retirement age. "We need to make fiscal responsibility a top priority, not just today's debt problems but the hole that is getting deeper every second," he said.

So what should Congress and the next administration do?

"A capable budget commission should look at how we can reform Social Security, health care and the tax (code) expeditiously and report to Congress which should guarantee an up or down vote" on the findings, he said. The commission should be made of "truly capable independent individuals."

Walker, current president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, travels the country with compatriots from the conservative Heritage Foundation, left-leaning Brookings Institution and nonpartisan Concord Coalition on the "Wake Up America" tour in order to raise public awareness of the federal government's shaky finances.

Audiences are "shocked and appalled with how bad the situation is," Walker said of the reaction he receives on the road. "The public is smarter than the politicians give them credit for. They get it.

"The federal government's continued abuse of the national credit card is irresponsible, unethical and arguably immoral," Walker said. "It is massive taxation without representation. We are passing a check to future generations too young to vote, many of them are not even born yet."

Video: "60 Minutes" interview with Dave Walker

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