The Thinker

America: grow up

Polls, polls. There are so many of them out there at the moment and most of them trying to figure out how us voters will vote on November 2nd. Here’s what I’ve gleaned from them: voters are frustrated and feel Washington is disconnected from their lives. They are mad as hell and ready to vote their incumbent out of office. They don’t approve of Democrats in Congress, but like Republicans in Congress even less. They are lukewarm at best about President Obama, but as least his approval numbers tend to hover in the forties, which is good for this toxic political environment. If the election were held today, Republicans would retake the House but probably not the Senate, but regardless of who wins, the voters don’t expect a whole lot to change. In addition, a sizeable number of us must have been smoking something because one in five of us actually believe President Obama is a secret Muslim.

Frustration is understandable. Voters voted for change, but they don’t much like the change they got, not that they liked what they had before either. And speaking of change, many of them are living on it, and food stamps, and extended unemployment benefits and maybe living in their parents’ basement. The job market is a depressing mess and those jobs that are available tend to pay a lot less than the ones lost.

Everyone wants relief from their misery, to know that real prosperity is ahead and that we can go back to living comfortable and predictable lives again. If anything in the Republican pitch is resonating, it is the vision of the white clapboard house with the picket fence and a flower garden in the front. Also, it sure would be nice to have our homes worth something close to what we paid for it, and to see our 401-K’s recover.

We can certainly wish for these things, but to expect them to all materialize rapidly is ludicrous. Unemployment is but a symptom of our real problem: a government and society still vastly overleveraged. Republicans can rail against the perceived socialist Democrats. Democrats can hiss back at Republicans for putting us deeply into debt and creating costly and unnecessary wars. All that hatred and vitriol though accomplishes nothing, which is why the anger that will be expressed on November 2nd will not bring relief. We all seem to understand that we can change the cast of players in Congress and the White House, but the relief we crave for is not going to magically appear. We face problems that no ideology can fix and no quick political voodoo can solve. Collectively, the nation is grieving, wailing for a time that is lost and not likely to come again, at least not anytime very soon.

With rare exceptions, politicians cannot be elected by telling us the truth. They tell us what we want to hear, and wrap their narrative around all sorts of other villains, most of them props. Yet, now of all times we must hear the truth, the truth that we know in are hearts. In case you are not listening to yours in the quiet of the night, here’s what it is saying. I can’t take credit for it. It was articulated by Walt Kelly many decades ago in the comic strip Pogo.

We have met the enemy and he is us

America, it’s time for some very strong coffee and to face some uncomfortable facts. First, we live in a democratic republic. Like it or not, we created this mess not that other guy. We created it by voting in people who told us what we wanted to hear. We also created it by tolerating a government that worked for the special interests, instead of demanding one that worked for us. Most of us selfishly tuned out our civics lessons. Instead, we grew fat, tone deaf and apathetic. Don’t care, can’t make any difference, so why bother? Still, for better or worse, it’s our government. We own it. We are all stockholders and the board of directors is out of control. We can’t all emigrate so we have to sober up and fix it.

It’s not the Democrats that need to fix it, nor the Republicans, nor the Independents, nor the Kiwanis Club of Passaic, New Jersey. We need to fix it. We need to fix it together. To fix things, no one is going to get what they want. We are going to have to reach that hardest of places here in American government: consensus. And it is going to be painful. Yeah, I know it’s already painful and you want the pain to go away, but to get to that promised land is going to require more pain. It will require years of pain at best, decades at worst. We have to undo a whole lot of self-inflicted damage and fundamentally change our orientation. Moreover, the stakes could not be higher. If we do not, we are facing the likely bankruptcy and eventual dissolution of the United States. I may have more on that in a later post.

America, we need to so sober up quickly, stop the incessant finger pointing and get busy. Republicans, to get to consensus, you must accept that America will not be the libertarian, Christian, largely white, God-fearing, ultra low tax utopia that you want it to be. By the way, it never was, and never will be. Democrats, America will never be the liberal, gun-free, vegetarian, eco-friendly, blissfully multicultural Birkenstock wearing utopia you want it to be. Independents: no party has a solution that is going to make you happy. The middle ground may not be ideal but if we want to actually solve some of our problems rather than find ourselves a second-class country, it’s a place we all have to get to again.

You get to the middle through this forgotten process called achieving consensus, or, failing that, compromise. We do it all the time in the business world. Not a week goes by where I work where some dispute does not comes up. My team and I do what we have learned to do: we talk an issue through, realizing that while we don’t always agree with each other, we respect each other enough to come to consensus. It’s sort of like therapy. Why should it be anathema for our political parties to do something as civil as I do at least once a week?

Take a deep breath because here’s a sample of what compromise will mean. For liberals this will mean some constraints on entitlements. It may mean something like Medicare costs cannot grow faster than the cost of living in general or a requirement to not allow Medicare costs to exceed a portion of the budget. It will mean that when we find some new medical problem we will not immediately be able to throw money at it, at least not without taking it from somewhere else out. For conservatives, it means that health care vouchers are out. We will mend the Medicare and Medicaid systems we have and make them the best we can with the money we can afford to invest in them, and they won’t be run by the private sector. Yeah, I know these ideas give both liberals and conservatives hives. Grow up.

We all need to suck it in because we are all in this together. We should not take anything off the table, not set any condition that will make us hide in our corners and pout. I was disappointed in President Obama recently when he suggested that the Bush tax cuts for the middle class should never be rescinded, even while he promoted restoring them for the rich. (It is true that when he set up the deficit commission he said everything was on the table, including potential tax increases should the commission recommend them. But that was then, not now.) While increasing taxes on the middle class may not be a good idea in a recession, any prudent stewards of the country would have to agree that in normal times taxes can at least be where they were when President Clinton was in office. We managed just fine, had terrific prosperity and even had a couple years of surpluses. Congress even had pay go rules which basically said you had to either raise taxes or cut something else if you want to propose a new program. Unfortunately, since Clinton left office the public debt has increased by at least half again (more than five trillion dollars). Our goal is not just a balanced budget, but paying down our debt. It means moving prudently and deliberately toward a balanced budget. That is but the first step. It also means paying back principle on our debt as well as interest on it, so our debt load decreases over time. What this really means in essence (steel yourself) is paying more in taxes and probably getting less.

So no one feels singled out, the pain must be spread evenly, and that’s where it will get even harder because we excel at creating tax policies where someone else gets the short end of the stick. It could be something simple like raising the tax rates five percent for everyone. Yes, this will mean a lower standard of living for us in the short run. However, it will also mean that we will be paying down our debt and our grandchildren will not inherit such an onerous debt.

Maybe there is someone in Congress brave enough to tell us the truth. There is at least one columnist. I know I would vote for such a brave politician. No more crying; no more whining. We made our fiscal mess and we must clean it up. If you ask me, anyone who stakes out an ideological position not to do so is unpatriotic at best, and a traitor at worst. This is our country. We are one United States or divided we will fall. We will not grow our way out of this problem. This problem will not ease until the burden of our national debt starts to lift from our collective shoulders.


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