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Deficit Hawks 'Have No Monopoly On Morality,' Summers Says

Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and others from the GOP have spoken with NPR in recent years about why they believe the federal debt is the nation's "No. 1" problem.

Lawrence Summers on deficit reduction, investment and morality

And in Ryan's view, as he told us in 2011, lawmakers have "a moral obligation ... to put up solutions to fix this problem."

Morning Edition plans to air a view from the Democratic side on Tuesday. We listened in on host Steve Inskeep's conversation with Lawrence Summers, who was Treasury secretary in the final years of the Clinton administration and was a top White House economic adviser during President Obama's first term.

Here is Summers on another way to look at the moral issues:

"If we were to cut the deficit on the back of deferring maintenance on our infrastructure, on the back of short-changing investments in providing educational opportunity, on the back of cutting back basic measures in science, on the back of failing to protect the environment, that would be doing our children no favor.

"If we were to leave our children in a situation where because we had slashed away at entitlement programs they lived their lives in the shadow of a need to take care of us during our retirement, in the shadow of a need to protect their parents from the vicissitudes of high health care costs, that would be doing our children no favor.

"The deficit alarmists have no monopoly on morality. Their arguments, in fact, by short-changing economic growth, put our moral obligation to succeeding generations at risk.

"Yes, we do need to make budget adjustments. Yes, once we get this economy growing there are important changes that are necessary.

"But for now, a political process that cannot focus on very much at a time and has great difficulty getting anything done needs to focus its energy and the right focus for its energy is on economic growth."

Economic growth, Summers argues (including in a recent Washington Post op-ed) can be boosted by spending on education, infrastructure, science and technology — spending that's going to be done at some point anyway and can arguably do the most immediate good when the economy is sluggish. What's more, as he wrote in the Post, "spurring growth has a multiplicity of benefits" that include deficit-reduction.

Much more from the conversation with Summers, as we said, is due on Tuesday's Morning Edition. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show. After the interview airs, it will be posted on the show's webpage.

A related from September: Summers Pulls Out Of Running To Be Federal Reserve Chief.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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