By Amy Matzke-Fawcett
"Unsustainable" was the byword Wednesday as more than 250 people gathered in Roanoke to hear three politicians piped in from Washington and two think-tank types discuss the nation's debt of $15.6 trillion.
Ferrum College hosted the visit to the Hotel Roanoke & Conference Center by the National Debt Tour, a traveling symposium on the perils posed by deficit spending, entitlements and a coming demographic crisis.
"To stay on this level, where the federal government is borrowing 35 [percent] to 40 percent or more of its revenue each year is an absolutely staggering situation to find ourselves in, and it is obviously unsustainable," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
"This problem, cannot, will not, be solved on either one side of the balance sheet or the other," said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. "We cannot tax the rich enough to solve this problem, nor can we simply nip and tuck."
"Do you want a government that takes care of you from the cradle to the grave, or do you want a government that is limited in nature and allows the most opportunity and prosperity and freedom for the individual?" said freshman U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, R-Pittsylvania County. "I think that's the American way, not the former."
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts on the Debt Tour, with earlier stops at Harvard University and New York City.
The three elected officials on video links were joined by in-person panelists Joe Minarik, senior vice president and director of research from the Committee for Economic Development, and Paul Posner, director of the Centers on the Public Service at George Mason University.
The scope of health care spending and need for Medicare reform were common threads that weaved throughout the presentations.
The U.S. spends 17 percent of its gross domestic product on health care, a number equal to the size of the economy of France, Minarik said.
"The health care problem is not limited to government spending," he said.
An aging population in the United States has become a huge problem for the country -- there are more people retiring than those working to support Social Security or Medicare, Warner said.
"The funding and framework of our entitlement programs have not kept up with an aging population," Warner said.
Years ago, there were 16 people working for every one person on Social Security; today there are three working for every one on Social Security, and by 2025, there will be two people working for every person on the program, Warner said.
There are incentives to each political party to reduce the gap between revenues and spending, Posner said.
"In every nation, there's public ambivalence about deficit reduction," he said. "People want the government to be balanced, but they want their programs and they don't want their taxes to beraised."