Jay Ambrose - We're upside down and debt crash is coming

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In the movie "Flight," something major goes wrong with a passenger jet. It starts plunging downward, the pilot amazingly, incredibly rolls the plane upside down to keep it just barely under control, and, at this point, if President Barack Obama were watching, he'd probably stand up to reassure the audience.

"We don't have an immediate crisis," he would say, an encouraging smile on his face. "The plane is in a sustainable place."

The plane wasn't. Though still in the air, it was definitely heading for a crash, just as our economy and federal government are heading for a crash. The issue is a debt that still menaces the American future, no matter what the president said to ABC correspondent George Stephanopoulos on "Good Morning America."

He pleasantly maintained that deals with Republicans about such things as fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings meant budgetary reasonableness, if not fulfillment of all the best possibilities. His stated view is that we are in a noncrisis situation "sustainable" for the next decade.

Nope. The real prospect is for a $16 trillion-plus debt growing to an economy-squeezing, budget-banging, catastrophe-inviting $23 trillion. You think that's rabble-rousing right-wingers talking? It's nonpartisan number crunchers in the Congressional Budget Office.

Obama has made it sound as if the accomplishments to date ought to elicit a grin a minute from his once-fretful debt commission. It's still fretful, as Jonathan Karl of ABC reveals in quotes from interviews with its two leaders, Democrat Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, and Republican Alan Simpson, the always colorful, always wise ex-senator from Wyoming.

There's trillions of dollars more work to do, said Bowles. The responsible parties have stayed away from the "tough stuff," such gargantuan matters as making Social Security solvent or reforming the tax code to make it work. Simpson's word of the day was "madness." Americans are reaching the age of 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day, he said, and federal programs for them are going to "eat a hole through America." Lack of action is not just irresponsible, his words suggested. It is insane.

It's already the case that entitlements -- mainly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- constitute a major share of the budget and are passing the point at which "obese" is an adequate adjective. If the government maintains them without significant restructuring, just two basic ways exist to prevent a debt that could well bring us economic calamity. One is hiking taxes so high as to do the same thing. The other is cutting other federal programs so much as to bring us jokes about ending White House tours for even the president himself.

The problem is that Medicare and Social Security are immensely popular with the middle class and that demagogic politicians have made it sound that even perfectly reasonable refashioning would force the elderly to survive on dog food. Obama is still playing that game, referring to tiptoeing Republican proposals as gutting the programs, which is to say that he remains so enmeshed in his collectivist, welfare-state, big-government ideology that he is can no longer recognize reality.

Republicans to the rescue? The sad case is that some in this beleaguered bunch are lately playing down the looming crisis, too. It is not difficult to find astute fiscal critics who think the most recent budget proposal by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, does not go nearly far enough.

Back to the movie "Flight." In it, the pilot performed brilliantly during the emergency, even though he was criminally under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Maybe he did as much as could be done, because while the plane did crash, most aboard survived. Obama and GOP leaders are not alcohol-addled, thank heavens, but neither have they performed brilliantly. They have not done a fraction of what needs to be done, and no responsible citizen should let them off the hook. Otherwise, the economic survivors could be a precious few.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.)

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