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Running on Empty - How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do about It

Running on Empty - How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do about It

4.4 9
by Peterson

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The national bestseller, described by Tom Brokaw as the “wake-up call we cannot ignore,” with a new preface by the author

Acclaimed by all sides of the political spectrum, Peter Peterson's Running on Empty not only traces the deterioration of America’s finances but offers solutions. This national bestseller is required reading for


The national bestseller, described by Tom Brokaw as the “wake-up call we cannot ignore,” with a new preface by the author

Acclaimed by all sides of the political spectrum, Peter Peterson's Running on Empty not only traces the deterioration of America’s finances but offers solutions. This national bestseller is required reading for everyone concerned with America’s long-term economic survival. In clear and concise prose, Peterson offers America not only a vision but the practical steps by which to ensure our children’s economic future. Running on Empty is not only a warning, it is also a manifesto calling for the next administration to finally confront a deep and disturbing problem that politicians of all parties have insisted on ignoring for too long.

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Caldwell
With precision and punch, Mr. Peterson's Running on Empty lays out why we are in a lousy position to dig ourselves out of this hole.
The New York Times
Ted Van Dyk
Unlike most analytic and policy-prescriptive books, Peter G. Peterson's Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It is lively and plainly written. A former Cabinet member, a lifelong Republican, a business and financial executive and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, Peterson is a certified establishmentarian. But he also is a Nebraska straight talker who calls 'em as he sees 'em and has done so consistently regarding the structural federal budget deficits that threatened us in the 1990s and do so again now.
The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
For years, Peterson, secretary of commerce under Nixon and author of Gray Down, has been a compelling Cassandra, warning that the mix of growing debt, an aging population, and deficits in Social Security and Medicare portend disaster. Now, he laments, Republicans pursue reckless supply-side economics and Democrats, assuming a repeal of Bush's tax cuts would enable new government spending, are unwilling to consider limits on entitlements. Citing study after study, the author shows that it is a failure of leadership, not knowledge, that has let deficits loom. Beyond that, add the new burdens imposed by September 11-and the fact that European countries, aging like us, likely will have less money for security and international aid. Peterson attacks 10 partisan myths, among them that means-testing federal benefits will shred the safety net; that the elderly are poorer than children, that Americans are overtaxed and that using tax cuts to shrink government can work. What went wrong? He blames interest groups, individualism, short-termitis and generational change. Peterson offers concrete solutions: among them: index Social Security to prices, not wages; use the federal employees' health plan as a model; force Congress to include unfunded retirement obligations in its balance sheet; and pursue more nonpartisan politics, such as free TV time during campaigns. A self-described "fat cat," Peterson is willing to bear an "affluence test" for Social Security; he challenges leaders to revive JFK's call for civic responsibility. Agent, Andrew Wylie. (July 14) Forecast: The punditocracy will embrace and debate this book. Though Peterson has harsh words for all, George W. Bush's opponents could seize on the charge that Bush and his Congress "have presided over the biggest, most reckless deterioration of America's finances in history." Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.95(d)

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Banking Our Future And What Americans Can Do About It by Peter G. Peterson. Copyright © 2004 by Peter G. Peterson. Published in August, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


Less than three short years after America absorbed the double blows of 9/11 and the collapse of the bubble economy, a new mood of triumphalism reemerged in many quarters. Saddam Hussein was dragged from his spider hole and humiliated before the world. Inflation and interest rates remained low while productivity and profits soared. The stock market roared back and investors began reading their statements again. So quick was the rise in manufacturing and consumption that freight backed up on the nation's railroads and waterways.

Yet if it seemed the dawn of another "Morning in America," many Americans still felt a chill in the air: at what price did America purchase its recovery? Yes, nearly everyone agreed that tax cuts and a big run in federal spending had helped to stimulate the economy. Everyone agreed the Fed had been right to cut interest rates. But even after three big tax cuts in a row, a boom in home refinancing, and zero percent auto loans, the economy was slow to produce jobs, personal savings rates skidded to historic lows, and the nation faced ballooning budget and trade deficits stretching as far as the eye can see.

Meanwhile, the oldest baby boomers are just a few years away from retirement. Today, Social Security still runs a sizable cash-flow surplus, which covers the roughly equal cash-flow deficit in Medicare.But official projections show that within fifteen years both programs will be paying out far more in benefits than they collect in taxes, with Medicare's red ink far surpassing that of Social Security. Indeed, if one looks at Social Security and Medicare together, including both Medicare's hospital and physician programs, they go from a modest combined cash-flow deficit of about $25 billion in 2003 to an unthinkable annual cash-flow deficit of $783 billion in 2020 (or $519 billion in today's dollars). And that annual deficit is projected to reach $4.3 trillion (that's $4,300 billion) by 2040 (or $1.6 trillion in today's dollars). No longer will Congress be able to use Social Security tax dollars to pay for Medicare's deficits or for other government operations. Unless Social Security and, in particular, Medicare benefits are brought under control, the government will face stark options: either draconian cuts in defense, education, transportation, the criminal justice and other programs, or huge tax hikes—or, of course, both.

What were the politicians preparing to do about all this? The Republicans wanted to make all of their recent tax cuts permanent, while also pushing for big increases in spending on defense, homeland security, energy subsidies, and miscellaneous pork. Meanwhile, the Democrats vowed to do away with the tax cuts for the rich, preserve tax cuts for the middle class, put new money into education, health care, highway construction, and miscellaneous pork while promising to do nothing about the big deficits in Social Security and Medicare—except perhaps to make them bigger. After a costly new expansion of Medicare to pay for prescription drugs, the Democrats complained it "didn't go far enough," thereby suggesting we make an already unsustainable program even more unsustainable.

America was back, but for how long? Were we celebrating an economic Pyrrhic victory?

Buried deep in the financial pages, telltale signs are appearing that suggest America may well be headed for a financial meltdown. In January 2004 the staff of the International Monetary Fund, who normally worry about profligate nations like Argentina, took direct aim at the United States, warning the world that we are careening toward insolvency. They point to a huge and growing imbalance between what the federal government has promised to pay in future benefits and what it can reasonably expect to collect in future taxes. Its long-term structural deficit now exceeds 500 percent of gross domestic product. Closing that gap, the IMF calculated, "would require an immediate and permanent 60 percent hike in the federal income tax, or a 50 percent cut in Social Security and Medicare benefits."

Adding to the gathering fiscal storm is America's growing dependence on foreign capital. Because Americans import far more goods and services than they export, and because the federal government borrows so much and Americans save so little, the American economy is increasingly owned by, or indebted to, foreigners. This is America's other deficit, the so-called current-account deficit, which indicates how much of our birthright we are selling off to foreigners, or promising to pay them in future interest payments. Last year the United States imported capital from foreigners at an unprecedented rate—four billion dollars every working day.

These "twin deficits"—the U.S. budget deficit and America's current-account deficit—pose a dual challenge. Today's budget deficits consume so much of the nation's meager savings that we must turn to other countries to finance our home mortgages, credit card balances, and the business investments that fuel our growth. Thus, if foreigners stopped providing us with so much easy money, interest rates would likely shoot up, the dollar would likely sink, and the economy would likely stall. This flow of easy money also reduces pressure on our government to cut its own reckless borrowing, and on ordinary Americans to reduce their consumption and increase their savings.

For a long time this arrangement has been a boon for American consumers. This borrowing from abroad allowed us to buy lots of cheap imports, even if it caused many Americans to get hooked on credit and others to lose their jobs to foreign competition. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics, observes, "We finally understand the true meaning of supply-side economics. Foreigners supply most of the goods and all of the money."

But the arrangement cannot last indefinitely: we have for too long consumed far more than we have produced as a nation. International economists agree that the odds of severe adjustment problems mount rapidly once an economy exceeds a current account deficit of 5 percent of GDP. In 2003 our current-account deficit just reached that mark. It is now half again as large, as a percentage of GDP, as our previous record set in 1987, a year that saw a one-third drop in the dollar and a still legendary stock market crash. And New York Fed economists expect the current-account deficit to climb still higher.

Taking the longer view, we must also remember our creditors, notably western Europe and Japan, are aging even more rapidly than the United States. They will eventually need their savings at home to pay for their own retirement systems, which are even more costly than our own. China, another major U.S. creditor, is also aging rapidly, while also needing huge amounts of capital to finance its own industrial expansion.

Meet the Author

Peter G. Peterson is the author of Gray Dawn: How the Coming Age Wave Will Transform America—and the World. He is chairman of The Blackstone Group and chairman of The Council on Foreign Relations.

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Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do about It 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Makes the average American citizen realize the reality of our budget problems.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is now three years since this book came out and I just happened upon it recently. Peterson gives a sober and realistic portrayal of lies before America in the not too distant future. I am not optimistic that America is listening. We are now a nation of special interest groups who scream 'bloody murder' when our entitlements or tax-cuts are threatened. When the day of reckoning comes none of that will matter. We fancy ourselves well informed and independent, but every election results in a politician who promise everything to everyone and believes none of what he or she says. Only when we stop electing optimists who tickle our ears will there be any hope for America. Mr. Peterson seems to think that will happen. I am not so sure. We have aborted much of the very generation we count on to pay for our retirement because having them around cramped our style. Does that make sense to anyone?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Our political system is such that little long-term planning is performed and citizens are often left in the dark about issues until the issues become so significant that they have to be dealt with immediately. Peterson illustrates this marvelously in Running on Empty and makes an excellent case to change that behavior. As if the financial future of America did not look bleak enough with the outsourcing trend and an escalating trade deficit, the lack of any plan to address social security and medicare demonstrates irresponsible behavior by our elected officials (and us citizens who let them get away with it). Peterson's resume gives him great credibility and the book shows great use of the resources available to him. Most importantly, his data translation makes the issues clear to readers. Though the detail may be a bit heavy for average Joe citizen to completely understand, this should be required reading for most voters, especially social science students/graduates.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Peter G. Peterson writes an excellent book about the economy, Wall street, President Bush, and how the neo- conservatives are pushing their policies for monetary reasons. However, Peterson does not invoke any assertions pertaining to a neo-conservative movement or have any PNAC contentions. It is very informative, especially for people who are not Wall Street savvy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This basic, common sense, practical and down-to-earth guide to leadership will delight anyone who has always wondered how to become a leader but never figured out how. Steve Farber, author of this treasury of leadership lore, is the leader who can help you find the leader within you. His parable is full of the kind of characters who delight storytellers, such as the affectionately-limned 22-year-old blonde in a bikini who approaches the author on a beach to ask what he thinks leadership is, or the Zen-like old, grizzled sage of leadership. These characters are designed to inspire you to believe that you, too, can be a leader, no matter how low your self-esteem. Moreover, Farber pushes business writing to the edge (in fact, one of his main characters is named Edg). He even manages to work in quotations from decadent, drunken, insane poet Charles Bukowski, author of such classics as Notes of a Dirty Old Man. Read this book and learn to follow the leader to leadership. It turns out that leadership is surprisingly easy once you know how to do it. We believe we are not giving away too much of the ending if we tell you that the author believes 'Love' is the final answer to the question, 'What is leadership?'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Social Security and Medicare: increasing benefits. Homeland Security and Defense: increasing expenditures. Tax Cuts: reduced revenues and increasing deficits. These are real issues to focus on, instead of four months in Viet Nam 35 years ago. Mr. Peterson does an excellent job of laying out the problems and the fact that no solutions are on the horizon. He is more optimistic than I am and has some suggestions for reform that should be tried out. To me, the root of the problem is the fact that we are dependent on politicians to fix the mess they have done so much to create. Elected persons at the national level don't have the guts to tackle the entitlement programs even though the cost of future payouts will bankrupt succeeding generations. The disconnect between the people and their 'leaders' is a reason why so many young people are indifferent to what happens in Washington. Those who do pay attention, i.e., those who vote, are too old, too well off and too greedy. That is why it is called an entitlement, dummy. Cheney says Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. No honest person who reads this book will ever believe that again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿Running On Empty¿ is an important non-partisan book about America and our fiscal, political and social problems. Many important solutions are recommended and detailed. I read a lot ... economics, business, markets, history, politics and anything else that interests me ... 265 books in the last 8 years. Peterson¿s book does not have a political agenda, motive or intent. It is not anti-Republican or anti-Democratic. It is a stinging and accurate study of our fiscal, political and social policy issues including social security, Medicare and taxes. It is all about Americans of today and future generations, including proposals for changes that need to be assessed and acted upon ... and soon. It is absolutely ¿must¿ reading in my opinion. It might be the most important book I have read in many years. It is very well written by someone with the perfect background and knowledge of the subjects. Peterson is a life long Republican who was Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon Administration and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York. He is a brilliant, articulate, honest and fair writer.