There were a lot of statistics thrown around about rising federal debt and out-of-control budgeting, but one message rose above it all: Young people will eventually take the biggest hit, and they need to act now.
"There are serious intergenerational implications of what is going on now," said David Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general and the founder and CEO of Comeback America Initiative Inc., at a forum in Madison last week.
U.S. Rep Mark Pocan (D-Madison) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) were also part of the panel discussion. It was hosted by the student organization Bipartisan Issues Group and cosponsored by Fix the Debt-Wisconsin and its "millennial arm," the Can Kicks Back, among others.
"Deficits result in debt that has to be serviced with interest cost. They represent deferred taxes," explained Walker, whose group promotes a bipartisan approach to fiscal responsibility.
"The truth is that young people are not as engaged in this as they need to be," he added. "You need to do more than social media."
Walker issued a call to action: "Every now and then you need to have boots on the ground and be in the face of the decision makers. My generation used to show up and march. Your generation needs to do that more. You have to be disproportionately engaged in order to make a difference."
Alex Holland, cofounder of UW-Madison's Bipartisan Issues Group and chapter leader of the Can Kicks Back, urged young people in the audience to sign a petition demanding that the president and Congress take immediate action to address the nation's trillion-dollar debt and craft a "bipartisan, common-sense solution."
Holland said that everything from education reform to environmental protection depends on paying down the nation's debt.
"We need to put personal politics aside in order to have a fair and pragmatic conversation about how we're going to reduce our long-term deficit," he said.
Given the theme of bipartisanship, the exchanges between Pocan and Johnson were cordial and generally nonconfrontational.
The one exception came in a discussion on how to address the deficit. Pocan argued that both cuts and revenue increases are needed. "A simple plan of austerity," like the budget passed by the House this year, "is not going to do it," he said.
"Simply cutting and slashing when the economy needs to get up and running is the opposite of what you want to do."
But Johnson defended his Republican colleagues in the House, who, he said, came up with a way to balance the budget. "To call it austere, that's good political demagoguery. It's simply not true."
Fix the Debt launched in July 2012 in the lead-up to the so-called fiscal cliff discussions in Congress. Former Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Klug and former Democratic Gov. Tony Earl lead the steering committee for the Wisconsin chapter, which was formed in October. The group bills itself as a nonpartisan movement that aims to "put America on a better fiscal and economic path" by tackling the country's crippling debt.
But critics say it is simply doing the bidding of corporate leaders whose real aim is to build popular support for cuts to social service programs.
Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy calls it "the most hypocritical corporate PR campaign in decades."
"Its strategy is pure Astroturf: assemble power players in business and government under an activist banner, then take the message outside the Beltway and give it the appearance of grassroots activism by manufacturing an emergency to infuse a sense of imminent crisis," she wrote in February.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman also does not buy the idea that Fix the Debt represents "some kind of new gathering of concerned citizens." Instead, he argued in a December column that "it's just the latest addition to a group of deficit-scold shops supported by billionaire Peter Peterson, a group ranging from think tanks like the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget to the newspaper The Fiscal Times. The main difference seems to be that this gathering of the usual suspects is backed by an impressive amount of corporate cash."
According to Bottari, the national group has a staff of 80 and a budget of $60 million. In Wisconsin, outreach is being handled by the Arena Strategy Group, founded by Mark Graul, a Republican consultant.
Krugman argues that Fix the Debt, like all Peterson-funded groups, is "much more concerned with cutting Social Security and Medicare than with fighting deficits in general." And he questions how bipartisan a group can be that calls for revenue increases by closing loopholes - something he calls an unrealistic "Republican position."
Krugman also notes that the group has changed tactics in recent weeks as a new consensus has emerged that "deficits are declining and even 10-year budget projections basically show a stable fiscal outlook rather than exploding debt."
What's the new message? "We must bring down the deficit right away because it's 'generational warfare,' imposing a crippling burden on the next generation," writes Krugman in a March column.
Krugman argues that young people are really being shortchanged because the nation has failed to invest in public infrastructure and job creation.
Holland, who will graduate in 2015, can't speak to the financial backers behind Fix the Debt or the Can Kicks Back. But he says he's comfortable with the groups' bipartisan support.
"All these organizations are made up of Democrats and Republicans who believe we need comprehensive entitlement reform. But we also need to raise revenues, and it has to be a balanced approach."
Holland says it's not for him or his classmates to craft a deficit-reduction package. "We're advocating to pressure our legislators to deal with the problems we face and to create an open dialogue on our campus and in the community."