May 3, 2019

Welcome to Ask the Expert, our new blog series that will interview professionals from different industries, spanning from fiscal policy wonks to leaders in civic engagement, to learn more about their career paths and advice for the next generation of leaders involved in the Up to Us Movement. 

William Gale, a leading authority on how federal tax and budget policy affects the economy.

Our first featured expert in the series, William Gale, is a leading authority on how federal tax and budget policy affects the economy. He is the Arjay and Frances Miller Chair in Federal Economic Policy in the Economic Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, the co-director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and author of “Fiscal Therapy: Curing America’s Debt Addiction and Investing in the Future.”

Up to Us recently had an opportunity to speak with Bill regarding his new book, what history tells us about our current fiscal situation, and his advice for the next generation of leaders looking to address America’s first challenges.

Tell us about your job – what do you do?

My current role at Brookings requires a lot of research, writing and thinking, so I split time between my office, where I have a lot of meetings, and home, where I can do more deeper thinking and writing.  I’ve spent much of the last three to four years researching and writing my recent book, Fiscal Therapy. I spent a lot of time looking for answers to one key question: how should we deal with the debt problem?

What I came up with ended up being two books in one: an overview of the current situation followed by a potential solution. What I learned is that America, in fact, faces not one but two related challenges that policymakers must address in the coming years: tackling rising government debt while also restructuring taxes and spending for a more equitable and growth-oriented society. We need to balance today’s needs against tomorrow’s obligations. 

What advice do you have for young Americans looking to tackle this issue?

First, be informed. If you want to have a discussion with someone on fiscal issues, whether that is your peers or policymakers, it is important to have an understanding of the basics such as the difference between debt and deficit. Luckily, there are many great resources like Brookings Fiscal Ship, The Peter G. Peterson Foundation and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which are all non-partisan and can help individuals understand fiscal policy and the national debt. 

Second, it is important to “keep your eye on the prize.” What I mean by that is to look at the bigger picture around fiscal health and America’s fiscal future. These days, politics and policy have become divisively partisan and arguments are waged over spending cuts or increases and the bigger picture of fiscal sustainability gets lost. However, the good news is that fiscal sustainability is consistent with both conservative and liberal goals and citizens of all stripes can support the notion of making life better for our children and grandchildren.

Your newest book, Fiscal Therapy, mentions that history does not tell us how to deal with our current fiscal situation. What did you mean by that?

We have faced high debt before but have never had a situation like we face now, with projected debt levels that are both higher than in the past and expected to persist.  So, the way we’ve solved debt problems in the past won’t be sufficient to address it now.  There is a [Churchill] quote I reference in my book that sums up our current situation: “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted all other alternatives.” That’s where I believe we are now – exhausting our alternatives. However, our future holds a few forcing mechanisms that will require us to address this issue, such as the insolvency of Medicare and Social Security.  

I do not think it is correct to call our current fiscal situation a “crisis,” but it is a problem.  If we address the long-term fiscal imbalance soon, it will not require immediate, abrupt changes. But the longer we wait, the larger and more disruptive the required policy remedies will need to be. 

What can leaders in the Up to Us movement do to ensure we don’t reach this point?

Many policymakers from both parties understand – at least in principle – that it would be better to act sooner rather than later instead of waiting until federal programs are on the brink of insolvency. As President Kennedy once said, “the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” The sun is shining now, and I believe that young leaders can help spur the repair process. By being involved in a non-partisan movement like Up to Us, you’re already looking at the bigger picture and not getting stuck in partisan politics, which is great. 

While the nation faces many problems, we cannot ignore the issue of the national debt.  Stay civically engaged. Connect with your elected officials to let them know this is an issue you and your peers care about. Or, even consider running for office yourself! With a record number of millennials recently elected into Congress, it’s only a matter of time before the next generation of leaders, the leaders in the Up to Us movement, become the leaders making these policy decisions on behalf of our country.