Skip to main content

Let's make a deal on U.S. debt -- in 15 minutes

By Will Cain, CNN Contributor
  • Will Cain: Tom Coburn quit the Gang of Six senators when he couldn't reach agreement
  • Cain says he and liberal writer Bob Herbert tried to reach bargain on spending, taxes
  • He says both conceded important things but the gulf was too wide
  • Cain says he understands now why Coburn, other senators, don't have a deal

Editor's note: Will Cain, a CNN contributor who appears on "In the Arena" weekdays at 8 p.m. ET, is a media entrepreneur, small-business owner and host of "Off the Page" on National Contact him at

New York (CNN) -- It took U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn six months to realize the Gang of Six was dead on arrival. It took me 15 minutes.

The Gang of Six was a group of senators -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- who seemingly understood the nation's debt problem required a solution beyond Republicans yelling, "No more tax revenue!" and Democrats scoffing, "Don't you dare touch Medicare."

It was our best hope for a solution. And, for me, it was legitimized by the presence of Coburn, an unwavering conservative from Oklahoma. But Coburn dropped out of the Gang in late April, citing Democratic resistance to reforming entitlements. I'm surprised only that it took him so long.

A few weeks ago, on and off the set of CNN's "Your Money" with Ali Velshi, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and I unwittingly recreated the Gang of Six negotiations. And my experience seemingly ended the exact same way as Coburn's.

Let's make a deal

It all started when, walking off the set, Herbert said that he (like everyone) knew that we had to get a handle on our debt, but that he wouldn't do it "on the backs of the poor."

Unemployment and the government

I'm perfectly OK with programs designed to help the poorest among us, I told Herbert. But what I'm not OK with are programs designed to help the "doing-OK" among us. And that's what Medicare and Social Security are: welfare for the middle class. Herbert agreed -- I thought -- and we were off and running.

(To be fair, this is my recollection of the conversation. I'm sure in Bob's memory he was a genius and righteous and I was a buffoon. But, this is my recollection, so ...)

My opening bid: Cut defense

The Play: Cut the budget of the Department of Defense. But, wait, there's more: Pull out of Afghanistan.

The Tactic: I wanted to immediately show Herbert that I'm serious about reining in the budget, so I laid down a partisan sticking point. Make no mistake, I will be asking him to do the same later.

The Substance: Nick Gillespie of Reason put it perfectly: "To think that we should be spending the same percentage of GDP on defense as Reagan spent in the '80s, when we had a true existential threat in the Soviets, because of a few thousand Al Qaeda," is just stupid. And Afghanistan is a total boondoggle with no discernible goal.

Herbert's counter: "Massive" infrastructure "investment"

The Play: Herbert proposed a "massive" infrastructure rebuilding project for roads, bridges, the electrical grid and ports on the East Coast, West Coast and Southern Coast.

Obama golf diplomacy
I have way more faith in the spontaneous chaos of the market to find the next big thing than in some bureaucrat in Washington.
--Will Cain

The Tactic: Whoa, an increase in spending -- er -- "investment," was not exactly the give-and-take I was looking for when I offered up the DOD. Still ... I accept. Because: A) I know how liberals love pouring cement, and B) I will be asking for some big cuts later. Plus...

The Substance: Herbert is concerned that lost amid the deficit hysteria is the fact that unemployment is hanging like an ox-collar over this economy. And he's right.

Herbert said that many of the lost jobs are coming from manufacturing and construction and can be shifted into these infrastructure projects. Maybe. Though I add this caveat: We dredge a port because a port needs dredging -- not to create jobs. Jobs are byproducts, not purposes. Otherwise we're just digging ditches and filling them back up.

My counter-counter: "Invest" in education

The Play: Increased "investment" in education.

The Tactic: I'm really laying it on thick now. And Bob should probably get nervous about where this is headed, because surely I'm going to be asking for something. But right now, it looks like another win for Bob, as I sacrifice the traditional conservative talking point of dismantling the Department of Education.

The Substance: There's a reason conservatives see the Department of Education as huge, worthless money-suck. Over the past 40 years, the federal government hastripled its per-pupil spending in real terms with no improvement in student performance.

So the word "invest" carries a lot of weight in my counter. Investing in education must mean greater school choice, teacher accountability and maybe a longer school year. I'm not sure any of that demands more money, but if it does, so be it. And education is the real answer to solving long-term, persistent, unemployment.

Herbert's counter-counter-counter: "Invest" in innovation

The Play: Increased spending on "innovation." I assume by this he means investment in green technology, green jobs and finding the "industries of tomorrow."

The Tactic: Herbert overplayed his hand. No chance. Denied. I can't blame him for trying though. At this point I've given in on defense, infrastructure and education. He's got to be thinking that I'm not just giving up partisan talking points, but I'm a pushover. What he should be thinking is: Cain's gonna want something for all this.

The Substance: Herbert is worried that investing in infrastructure in the short-term and education in the long-term isn't enough to solve persistent unemployment. He's worried that kids will be coming out of college with no jobs to be had unless we invest in the next big thing. This is where my ideology kicks in. I have way more faith in the spontaneous chaos of the market to find the next big thing than in some bureaucrat in Washington. And I've got history on my side.

Herbert's rejoinder: Raise taxes

The Play: Herbert wants an increase in tax revenues.

The Tactic: A little perturbed with my moralizing on innovation, Bob goes for the throat and requests more tax dollars.

The Substance: This is the ultimate test. Because not only are low taxes a partisan talking point among Republicans and a benefit to the economy, but the government has never pocketed an extra dollar in revenue. It has only found other places to spend it. But just like Coburn, I'm prepared to grant higher tax revenues (along with spending reform) to bring down the deficit and debt.

I would prefer to adopt the tax reform proposals from the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction panel, which lowers all tax rates below 25%, simplifies the code by doing away with credits and loopholes and increases total revenues. But Herbert is probably going to want a more redistributive, progressive tax structure to "ease inequality." And you know what, as philosophically sickening as it is to me, he might just get it. Because there's something I want ... hold onto your Medicare.

Cain's counter-rejoinder-counter-counter-whatever: Entitlement cuts

The Play: Cuts to both Social Security and Medicare.

The Tactic: At this point, I've given a hell of a lot. Although it makes up only 16% of the budget, I've increased the domestic discretionary budget through education and infrastructure. I've cut defense. I've allowed for increased tax revenues and a progressive tax system. I've dropped talking points left and right. I know I've turned off over half of my ideological brethren. But I did it all for this.

The Substance: What's your deal with Medicare, Herbert asked me. I take a deep breath:

A) Medicare and Social Security are welfare for the middle class; why does the middle class need welfare?

B) For every $1 we spend on kids, we spend $4 on old people. This is spending designed to make people comfortable in the near-term not an investment in the long-term. That is not a recipe for success.

C) These programs fundamentally change the relationship citizens have with their government: from constituent to customer.

D) These. Two. Programs. Are. Where. The. Deficit. Is. Coming. From.

No deal

The Play: Herbert shook his head sadly and said his ideology couldn't go there.

The Tactic: To be fair, Herbert was willing to means-test (of course) and raise the age of eligibility and tinker around the edges of these programs. But I discerned no real appetite to scale them back.

The Substance: All my concessions were part of a larger deal, a deal that had to get to entitlement reform. Without it, the whole thing falls apart. And I'm off ... to join Tom Coburn at the bar.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Will Cain.

Featured Deal |