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'What Eisenhower said about the military-industrial complex is true': Sen. Tom Coburn on the fiscal time bomb, the military, and morals in America.

"BOTH PARTIES have equally participated in abandoning the limited role of the federal government," says Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Coburn's new book, The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting Our Economy (Thomas Nelson), argues that Republicans and Democrats together have brought the U.S. to the brink of fiscal calamity.

First elected to the house in 1994 as part of the Republican Revolution, Coburn is a strong fiscal conservative who doesn't hesitate to publicly criticize members of his own party (including Revolution leader Newt Gingrich) for compromising their principles out of political expedience. Known in the Senate as "Dr. No" for opposing almost all new spending initiatives, Coburn says the federal budget is rife with "waste, fraud, and duplication." In 2006, he co-sponsored legislation that created, which makes publicly accessible a list of all recipients of government funds. In 2010, he was instrumental in getting the Government Accountability Office to begin researching and documenting wasteful government programs.


Coburn is a staunch social conservative as well. A supporter of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, he was a co-author of the Partial-Birth Abortion Act of 2003, and he supported a 1996 law requiring that "V-chips" be placed in all television sets to allow parents to block programming deemed unsuitable. In 1997, he criticized NBC for airing the Holocaust film Schindler's List on the grounds that it included "vile language, full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity." NBC characterized Coburn's views as "frightening" Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Coburn in July to discuss wasteful spending, entitlement reform, the need for free market health care, and whether he's losing faith in the government's ability to enforce values. Watch a video version of the interview online at Reason TV.

reason: Let's get right to it: When is the fiscal time bomb going to go off?

Tom Coburn: It's anywhere from two to five years from now, depending on what happens in Europe and what happens in the world economy. But there will be a point in time where people lose confidence in our ability to repay our debts.

reason: But so far bond rates are low, which would signal that people lending us money are OK with us running trillions and trillions of dollars in debt.

Coburn: Bond interest rates are low and that's normal when you have a debt de-leveraging. If you read long-term economic history, you'll see that this is not uncommon.

reason: So looking at low interest rates is missing the larger point?

Coburn: It's missing two important points. One is that we're the best-looking horse in the glue factory. The second point is that just because we have low interest rates doesn't mean they'll always be low. When you've printed $3.6 trillion worth of money--right now it's printed but it's not in the economy, it's sitting on bank assets listings and the Federal Reserve asset listings--what happens is when that money starts moving, when the velocity of that money starts moving, you're going to see 15, 18 percent inflation.

So the debt bomb is two things: short-term is deflationary, long-term is highly inflationary. And that has a real meaning to anybody that's living in our country. If you're my age or less, and you have socked away something for your retirement, the purchasing value of that goes away.

reason: Let's talk a little bit about how we got here. Since about 1950, the federal government on average has pulled in about 18 percent of GDP as revenue. But it's been spending closer to 20 percent.

Coburn: 21 percent.

reason: What was the role of the Republican Party under George Bush and with a Republican Congress in pulling apart expenditures from revenue?

Coburn: Both parties have equally participated in abandoning the limited role of the federal government. You lay on top of that the careerism of politicians who want to do things so they can get reelected and what you have is a catalyst, which makes that even go faster.

Our problems today are two-fold: We spent money we didn't have on things we don't absolutely need, which refers back to the enumerated powers listed in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.

reason: Talk a little bit about that.

Coburn: Well, we've spent $2 trillion on education at the federal level, with no improvement. There's no parameter you can find where we're better off. Job training programs, we spent $18 billion to almost $19 billion a year. [The Government Accountability Office] says they all of them do exactly the same thing except three. Why do we have 90-some teacher training programs? Where in the world do we get the authority to have teacher training programs run by the federal government? We spend several billion dollars a year on those. And you can just go through the list.

reason: Do you think when people see these long lists of programs and how much we're spending on them and how generally useless or even unknown they are, are people going to respond "We gotta get rid of these" or are they going to say "I gotta get in on that gravy train"?

Coburn: I believe the vast majority of Americans have common sense. It's only Washington that doesn't have common sense. The reason things don't change is that you keep sending the same people here. And the same people are good people but they're politicians.

reason: Do you think legally prescribed term limits are a way to go for that?

Coburn: No, I think the way to do it is for individuals to say, "I will not vote for you unless you put a certified statement out saying 'I'm limiting my term.'"

reason: You showed up in D.C. as part of the Republican Revolution in 1994, but you term-limited yourself out of the House of Representatives in 2000. You came back as a senator and you've term-limited yourself again.

Coburn: Yes, and I'll be gone in four years, thank goodness.

reason: A Republican budget passed by the House projects that in 10 years we'll take spending from about $3.8 trillion to $4.9 trillion. The Democratic budget, or at least Barack Obama's, would take that to about $5.9 trillion. Do you feel like Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are really addressing serious questions?

Coburn: I think there's a political calculation for all of them. I was dead serious when I said we can take $9 trillion out over the next 10 years.

reason: Now you've taken a huge amount of heat from the right side of the political spectrum for putting revenue increases on the table in terms of discussing how we fix the debt problem.

Coburn: I don't have any problem taking on this issue. Our historical average in terms of revenues has been around 18 percent. Doesn't matter what the tax rate is, you're not going to get much higher than that, maybe 19, 19.1. If you have a 70 percent tax rate or a 20 percent tax rate, you're not going get it because people are going to avoid taxes. They're not going to evade them, they're going to avoid them.

If you really think, given this country's make-up today, that you can get 60 Tom Coburns in the Senate to where you can actually cut the spending enough and reform the entitlements where you wouldn't have to have it and you could get the government down to 15 percent of GDP, I'm all for it. But if that's the case, I have a whole bunch of spoiled land in Oklahoma I'd like to sell you for $10,000 an acre. Because there's no truth to that.

The fact is, our Founders made this country where if you're going to change something, you have to do it based on compromise. And we're going to have to increase revenue. That doesn't mean increased tax rates. Actually, the increased revenues will come from the dynamic effect of lowering the rates and broadening the base and getting some of the $2.6 trillion that's sitting on the sidelines right now in businesses, invest it, and that will create jobs.

reason: Entitlements are where the big money is, right?

Coburn: A lot of people say that, you know, a trillion dollars a year in discretionary spending is big money, especially when 30 to 35 percent of it is waste, fraud, or duplication. If it's 35 percent, that's $350 billion a year, that's $3.5 trillion. If you truly ran the government efficiently--and that's not talking about things that are done outside of the purview of the enumerated powers--if you did that, you'd cut another $150 billion, and that's $5 trillion over 10 years. Then if you fix entitlements....

reason: You're talking about changing eligibility ages and things like that. But how do we fix Medicare? Medicare is something that gives essentially free or reduced price health care to seniors irrespective largely of income. Is that something we should be doing?

Coburn: The question is, is it constitutional? I would have to say it's outside of the enumerated powers. So is Medicaid. Social Security, if you wanted to create a system where the Social Security actually was set up independent and people could put their funds into it, and they could do it, that's all constitutional. You can do that. But the point is that if they were all self-financing, we wouldn't have any of the problems with it.

reason: So what's your best fix for Medicare?

Coburn: You can't fix Medicare unless you fix health care. And the best fix is to let free-market forces work on health care. What Sen. Richard Burr [R-N.C.] and I have proposed is the Seniors Choice Act, where you have a premium support system, and you connect purchase with payment and allow individuals to be involved. There are great corollaries in the private sector. And even our private sector doesn't have real market forces.

reason: How do we get to that market-based system? I know that you agree that markets have delivered great increases in productivity and service and treatments in every aspect of our lives. They can do it in medicine, you're a doctor, you recognize that. But how do we get there? Because the resistance is humongous, it seems, toward moving to a system where the patient is actually in charge of spending money.

Coburn: How you get there is to contrast what's going to happen if you don't change. And the question you ask a senior that's on Medicare today is, do you want Medicare not to change knowing that your children and your grandchildren will have a markedly lower standard of living if we don't change it? That's how you get there.

You have to have transparency in outcomes and quality in medicine, which we don't. Unless you're a doctor. I mean, I often ask the question, why do only the doctors know the bad doctors? Why isn't there a transparent market in terms of quality and service? If you want to get a complicated operation, do you really want to go to somebody who does it twice a year or 200 times a year? Which place do you go?

reason: If I created a system to rate doctors publicly, like Rate My Professor for doctors, would that be allowed?

Coburn: Sure it would. You have consumer reports out there right now. You could have consumer reports on health care. Here's the problem in health care: People in health care don't want transparency because we have a system that pays based on the more you do, the more you earn, rather than the quality of outcome and prevention. Market forces aren't perfect. But I guarantee they're better than what we're doing right now. And when you have a Medicaid system where the outcomes are worse than if you have no insurance at all....

reason: Which is stunning. Medicaid is not just an inefficient program, it's actually a disastrous program.

Coburn: It's a low quality program that says you have access when really you have no access or you have access to inferior quality. So there's ways to fix all that.

reason: In the book, you talk about turning Medicaid into block grants that go back to the states.

Coburn: Sure, let the states figure it out.

reason: And you don't have a problem with the social welfare net that's supplied by the government?

Coburn: No, look, I also mention in the book another book by a guy by the name of Marvin Olasky called The Tragedy of American Compassion. What we have done through the federal government is enhance dependency. We've taught learned dependency versus earned success. And if in fact we'd use the principles outlined by Marvin Olasky in our safety net programs, what we would see is much lower costs and much better outcomes. One of the things we're doing with our social safety net is keeping people down. We're actually harming them.

reason: To go back to Medicare and Social Security, should we get rid of them? Not all seniors need them, so wouldn't it make more sense to transform old-age entitlements into an income-tested safety net?

Coburn: There may be a point in time where we can accomplish that, but the fact is we have a very large number of Americans, in excess of fro million, that have planned their future based on that system. There has been a contract made with seniors. And you can't abandon that contract. But you can make that contract much more efficient and much more effective so the future of our kids is not....

reason: Do you find that that's actually a persuasive line of argument?

Coburn: Absolutely.

reason: Because it's geezers who are getting a lot out of things now. And they might have the power, right?

Coburn: Well, being a grandfather myself, I actually can relate to them. They would like to keep Medicare just how it is. But if you keep making the question: If you change Medicare, I will actually do something for my grandkids? It's kind of like when you ask a very wealthy individual, "Will you pay more taxes?" And they say "Absolutely, but I don't want it to be spent. I want it to pay down the debt" It's exactly the same thing. Seniors don't mind making a sacrifice. Remember, this country has done hard things. Most of the seniors were involved in doing those hard things. They're willing to do hard things again, but they want to know it's done for a noble cause.

reason: You've taken a lot of heat--again from the right side of the political spectrum--when you started to criticize defense spending. What do we need to do to right-size defense spending?

Coburn: Well, first of all, we have to figure out how we buy things. We want advanced weaponry and major weapon programs. Those are important things for us, [but so is] how we buy them. There are no adults in the room. What Eisenhower said about the military-industrial complex is true.

reason: In 2010, you called for a freeze on defense spending. And in 2008 you said that it was a mistake that we went into Iraq. There are two issues with military spending. One is how we get what we buy and how we go about buying it. And then there's what we want the military to do. How are those two issues related?

Coburn: If you look at history, you have the military mind based on what your economic mind is. Our economic mind is at risk. So it doesn't matter what our philosophical position is; we're not going to be able to fund it.

reason: How do we know if Iraq or Afghanistan were mistakes?

Coburn: I don't think I can judge that. I think we're going to judge that after we've left. And you're going across two administrations with different policies and different viewpoints. I think ultimately what you're going to see is that the power of ideas is more powerful than the power of weapons. And what our America led the world in and can lead again in is the power of ideas. People are aspirational toward our values, our rule of law, our freedom, our liberty, our limited government. And we're clouding that picture sometimes by what we do. My foreign policy is limited in its expertise, but I actually believe the Constitution. I actually don't believe we ought to get involved in things unless we have a direct national security issue.

reason: So what about Syria right now. Should we stand on the sidelines?

Coburn: Well, if we want to help arm people so they can fight for themselves, I have no problem with that. We should not be directly involved in Syria.

reason: Do you feel that this is something that conservatives are coming around to?

Coburn: I really don't know the answer to it. People have all sorts of views. What we do is learn from mistakes and we ought to not close our eyes and ears to that. And I think there's lots to be learned over the last 10 years.

We're spending hundreds of billions of dollars a year on homeland security. Can anyone guarantee us that we're not going to be attacked again? No. Can we lessen that to a significant degree? Yes. For each additional dollar we put in, what do we get in return? You've never heard a president having that conversation with the American people. There are risks out there. We can do so much. But if we spend additional dollars here, we made the de minimus reduction in risk versus if we spent the same amount of money trying to cure breast cancer, we'd get a whole lot more.

reason: You were one of the authors of the partial birth abortion ban act. And you cited the Commerce Clause as the justification for that. So how does the Commerce Clause apply in that case?

Coburn: The same way it might apply to an Equal Rights Amendment or a civil rights amendment. Go back to our Founding documents: "We're endowed by our Creator," "pursuit of life," "pursuit of happiness." You cannot pursue life if we've said we can take your life at our whim. It really is more a fundamental issue than the Commerce Clause.

reason: You talked with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan about this during her confirmation hearings. But you come from a natural rights tradition. You would be against abortion in all circumstances?

Coburn: Except to save the life of a mother.

reason: Over your political career, you've been a staunch social conservative as well as a fiscal conservative. When you were a congressman, you supported "V-chip" legislation, which was mandatory hardware in TV so that parents could block certain shows.

Coburn: But there's a difference there. Parents didn't have to block, it gave them the opportunity to block.

reason: OK. But it's still a mandate on TV producers.

Coburn: That's right. Just like we have a mandate that you have safety cord on a coffee pot. So that you're not electrocuted when the coffee spills over.

reason: OK, that seems a lot different than saying that Bugs Bunny....

Coburn: It's the same thing. The point is you create an opportunity for you to be safe.

reason: You're against abortion, you're against certain types of public displays. You had a fairly controversial take on the airing of Schindler's List when you were a congressman. In the Senate race in 2004, comments of yours made about lesbianism in public schools in Oklahoma caused a controversy.

Yet in the book, one of the things I found genuinely interesting is that you're not walking away from any of your positions, but it seems like your attitude toward the government's role in enforcing values is shifting. At one point you write, "Laws are pretty important, but they're not the most important thing." And that's in a section where you're talking about what the religious right needs to learn. Do you feel on a certain level that government is not the best instrument for pushing particular values throughout the society?

Coburn: It obviously isn't, because it hasn't done a very good job. I would answer yes. The problem comes is, what were the values that the country was based on? Whether you read The Federalist Papers or you read about our Founding Fathers, this country won't last if it's not seen as a moral country, as a good country. And one of the things that gives us value is that we put value into principles and character. And the character of the country, as you rationalize away standards of decency and standards of behavior, regardless of your libertarian viewpoint or not, the fact is those have consequences. And those consequences will impact the country. And the questions is, will it impact it positively or negative? The main answer to your question is, do you live a life that models the behavior that you think best represents what our Founders believed in?

reason: You talk about how the fiscal crisis is a moral crisis. And in this sense, it's because people are not holding themselves accountable any more than they're holding their beliefs accountable.

Coburn: That's right. What we've done is undermined individual responsibility and serf-reliance in this country. We didn't mean to. But we have. And if you look at Rome, if you look at Greece, if you look at every other republic in history, they died the same way. This isn't rocket science. Go look at what happened to them.

I'm not for undermining any more of our cultural values. I don't have to be right, but I do have the right to stand for what I believe is right. So, and I'm willing to speak on these issues. You can carry the libertarian thought all the way down to nil, that you have no responsibility to pay any taxes. How do you have a societal form where you don't participate? It's great to think about but it doesn't solve any of our real problems today. And our problems today are real. They're coming soon. The effects of them are going to be disastrous on a large quantity of Americans. We ought to be solving them now rather than putting them off and waiting for an election to happen.
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Title Annotation:Dwight D. Eisenhower
Author:Gillespie, Nick
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 4, 2012
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