Hiram College

Discussions on the national debt have dominated news coverage over the past few months, and on Dec. 5, 2011, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, addressed the many issues and policies that have led to the current situation, as part of the Garfield Institute for Public Leadership’s Seminar Series.

“We’ve been creating this problem for a really long time,” O’Neill, who served as head of the Treasury in 2001-2002 under former President George W. Bush, told a full crowd. “We didn’t start it yesterday. We didn’t start it during the Bush administration.”

He outlined policies dating back as far as the implementation of Social Security in 1935, which have led the U.S. to acquire upwards of $15 trillion in debt.

From the implementation of Medicare Part D, to the mortgage crisis, to tax cuts in the past decade, O’Neill said debt has continued to compound recently, bringing the issue to the forefront.

O’Neill suggested the country needs architectural changes – restructuring the tax code instead of raising or cutting taxes – and implementing systems that yield improved outcomes and reduced costs in healthcare and education. Many of the solutions offered so far have failed to get to the root of the problem.

Problems in the education system – with 30 percent of 10-year-olds being unable to read, write or compute – and in the healthcare system – with 300 million medication errors each year – continue to be talked about, but not changed, he said.

Yet despite the need for big changes in the way things work, O’Neill dismissed talk that the U.S. is like Rome in the early stages of decline; rather, he believes the country is one great leader away from getting back on track.

“The good news is, we still hold a position in the world economy,” he said. “We still have the economic wherewithal to pay interest on outstanding debt.”

For more information on the Garfield Institute for Public Leadership, please visit its website.

Photo by Kasey-Samuel Adams. More photos of the event are available on Flickr.