Now that the elections are behind us, we’re beginning to hear less spin and more in the way of concrete ideas from those whose jobs it is to put the country on sounder footing. At the federal level, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, co-chairs of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, have released a Power Point outlining their proposals. It’s a worthy document and not just because it addresses tough issues like health care, social security, and the tax code. It also lays down guiding principles that call for investing to promote economic growth and keep America competitive. What’s more, it points specifically to education as one of those areas (Principle 6).
It’s heartening to see the commission chairs promote investing in education as critical to achieving long-term fiscal responsibility. Bowles and Simpson clearly recognize that without investing in a better-educated workforce, we are not likely to achieve the commission’s over-arching goal of cutting our national debt to 60 percent of GDP by 2024 and below 40 percent by 2037. The wave of new governors who ran on platforms primarily dedicated to cutting costs would do well to heed this message. The road to future prosperity does not lie on the cost side of the ledger alone.
There’s no telling what policies might emanate from the commission’s effort. Its significance lies not so much in this or that recommendation, but in the fact that taken together, they represent a larger reform agenda that marks a shift away from waste to evidence-based investment.
Speaking of waste, one area Bowles and Simpson identify for achieving savings is farm subsidies. This is fertile ground for freeing up money some of which might better be spent for more productive purposes than producing commodity crops. The maze of subsidies going to farmers, who represent between 1 and 2 percent of the population, now tops $20 billion annually. In the world of early childhood education, that’s real money. If only 10 percent of that were dedicated to a federal early learning challenge fund that awarded competitive grants to the states for the purpose of developing more and better early childhood education, that would be progress. And, it just might turn the heads of some of those governors intent on cutting their way to fiscal prosperity.