The nation is entering a 30-year “demographic bubble” in which spending for promised benefits to retiring baby boomers could create a national debt greater than the value of all privately held assets, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said at a presentation Friday in Reedsburg.
“This is utterly unsustainable,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s “State of the Nation” presentation in Reedsburg was one of a series he held statewide this past week. About 40 people attended the session at the Reedsburg Recreation Center, which was also part listening session.
Johnson, 59, is a first-term Republican from Oshkosh and a fiscal conservative who has carved out a reputation as a deficit hawk since he defeated incumbent Democrat Russ Feingold in 2010 to win a Senate seat. His 30-minute presentation was occasionally interrupted by questions and comments from onlookers.
“We’re obviously not going to agree on everything here,” Johnson said. “All I’m asking people is get informed, get real information, get the facts.”
Johnson called the Social Security trust fund a “bookkeeping fiction” and said the belief that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were the chief causes of the nation’s record deficit is incorrect.
Johnson pointed to data from the Congressional Budget Office that put the combined cost of the wars at $1.5 to $2 trillion — far less than the $7 trillion added to the debt in the 5 ½ years of the Obama Administration.
“It’s exploded, not because of war spending; it’s exploded because of all the other government spending that is not funded…” Johnson said.
Johnson attributed the nation’s overall deficit problem to the growth of the federal government, which he said often takes the form of well-intentioned initiatives that create negative unintended consequences. For example, in recent decades, Johnson said, the federal government has tried to increase college attendance by “throwing money” at students in the form of loans.
The average student now graduates college with at least $25,000 in debt, yet a recent study at Northeastern University determined that half of all recent graduates are unemployed or working jobs that require no degree at all.
“We have done a disservice to our children, all with the best of intentions,” Johnson said.
The nation has spent between $16 trillion and $20 trillion to fight the War on Poverty since the mid-1960s, but the overall percentage of Americans in poverty stands now about where it was in 1966, Johnson said. Meanwhile, in what Johnson termed an “uncomfortable truth,” the numbers of out-of-wedlock births and single mothers have soared in the face of a benefit system in which single parents are often financially better off not working.
“Unless we’re willing to at least consider that, think about it — the harmful unintended consequences of well-intentioned programs — and start redesigning those things so we don’t tear apart the very fabric of our society, we’re going to have a hard time solving the problem,” Johnson said.
Residents peppered Johnson with questions and comments on a wide range of topics that included the minimum wage, class and political warfare, wasteful military spending, global warming and the Patriot Act.
Dave Gorak, executive director of the La Valle-based Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, thanked Johnson for voting against a bill that would have granted illegal aliens what supporters call a “path to citizenship” and opponents call “amnesty.”
“If you want to end illegal immigration you’re going to have to get rid of the incentives,” Gorak said. “(Even) a fool knows that if you leave the lid off the cookie jar, people are going to take the cookies.”
Reedsburg resident Judy Brey, one of several residents who offered Johnson some push-back at the Reedsburg session, questioned what he had done to help “the 99 percent of us who are struggling to make ends meet.”
Brey took issue with Johnson’s limited-government approach to solving the nation’s debt problems — an approach she said was responsible for the housing collapse and the resulting Great Recession.
“That happened because there wasn’t enough government overseeing Wall Street,” Brey said.
Sauk County Sup. John Dietz asked Johnson to consider adopting a policy of the man he replaced. Russ Feingold held listening sessions in each of the state’s 72 counties every year and Dietz said Johnson should, too.
“We see you on TV all the time but where the work gets done is in a room like this,” Dietz said.
Johnson said he recently finished his 34th telephone town-hall meeting in which more than 400,000 Wisconsin residents have participated, expanding his reach by “orders of magnitude” beyond the numbers Feingold achieved in his face-to-face meetings.
“Times change and technology improves,” Johnson said.
Two La Valle residents who attended the session gave Johnson a thumbs-up.
“Fabulous. The truth. And where’s Tammy Baldwin?” Bette Simono said.
“People just don’t get it, that it’s not a bottomless pit of money,” Mary Peterson said.
After the session, Johnson acknowledged that some in attendance appeared not to share his views.
“This would be one of the feistier crowds” he has faced lately, Johnson said.
But Johnson said he does not seek complete agreement, just an informed citizenry.
“I’m not saying you’ve got to agree with me,” Johnson said. “I’m saying just get informed and think.”
Johnson acknowledged the arithmetic behind the nation’s fiscal problems does not make for good political rhetoric and that making it relatable for audiences is a challenge.
“It’s what I’m grappling with all the time,” he said.
But understanding the numbers, Johnson said, needs to replace “demagoguery” and “sound bites,” which he said work against the nation’s purposes.
“It works politically,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to do anything to solve the problem.”