"How can I help?"
Not "Let's blame someone else." Not "What's in it for me?" Not "Pretend it doesn't exist." Not even "I'm mad as hell."
Whether the challenge is energy, health care, national security, education or the economy, when our nation is in serious trouble every American needs to ask, "How can I help?"
Let's start with the deficit and debt. No responsible adult would choose to inflict physical pain and suffering on a child if the adult could choose to bear it instead. It is hard to imagine someone saying, "If anyone has to get their arms broken, choose the 3-year-olds. They heal faster."
When it comes to fiscal pain, however, that is what we have been doing in America for years. More Americans now recognize our national debt as a problem, but when asked if they are willing to do something personally to lower that debt, either through reducing entitlements or paying higher taxes, the answer quickly becomes "No. Let someone else deal with it." This duality is now playing out in potentially damaging form in the context of pending votes to raise the debt limit.
Here is the honest truth: We must lower deficits and reduce our debt, but it will require reduced government services, stronger economic growth and higher taxes. The specifics of how this is done can vary, but you simply cannot reverse $1.5 trillion deficits overnight and you cannot do it without higher revenues and lower spending. What's more, the reductions in spending must touch some of the most popular of all government programs, and, for moral and economic reasons, tax increases must be shared by all of us, not just a few. Voters don't want to hear it, politicians don't want to say it, but that's the truth. When we deny that truth we are condemning our children to immense, perhaps unbearable, fiscal pain in the future.
To understand why, consider that of all the government spending in a year, about two-thirds goes to the big entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Our annual deficits now exceed all other spending combined. Even if we took each of the following actions, it wouldn't be enough:
Close the national parks; stop the wars; terminate all military activity or spending anywhere on earth; don't pay our troops; close the Everett home port, Whidbey Island air station, Bremerton, Bangor, and Joint Base Lewis McChord; stop the Boeing tanker along with all other weapons programs; open the borders; close the veterans hospitals; terminate all federally funded highway, dam, levee and other construction; cancel all federal emergency and disaster relief; end the space program; close the federal prisons; stop all foreign aid; eliminate federal health and science research; terminate federal education grants, loans and scholarships.
Even if we zero out all that and more, spending would still exceed revenues and our debt would continue to grow.
Several years ago I suggested to a colleague that both political parties should remember the scene in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" when the pair has no choice but to jump off a high cliff together into a raging river below. My point was that for the good of the country, Democrats would have to seriously consider fair and constructive ways to constrain entitlement and social discretionary spending while Republicans would have to be honest about the need to raise taxes and include defense spending among the necessary cuts.
My colleague's response was telling. "No," he said, "I think we'd rather just watch you jump off the cliff by yourself."
That kind of attitude, on either side, might appeal to one political base or another, and it might even win over a majority of voters, but it will not solve our problems. Each party will, by nature and habit, pander to its base and pounce on any apparent opening by the other side. The people, however, must recognize this isn't getting us anywhere except in deeper holes.
If we are serious about reducing the deficit, everyone has to be part of the effort, which means everyone, at all income levels, should contribute more in taxes. When Republicans say no one should pay higher taxes and there should be further cuts for the wealthy, they cannot honestly claim to be serious about the deficit. President Obama and the Democrats are only slightly less disingenuous when they propose raising rates only on those making more than $250,000 per year.
It is not fair or mathematically sufficient to ask only part of the population to pitch in when we are all in this together as a nation and the deficit is so large. Even with large cuts in spending, pandering to selfishness by saying that we'll only raise taxes on the rich or that we won't tax anyone more just will not generate the revenue we need to seriously reduce the deficit.
What's more, threatening to freeze the debt ceiling without being willing to address revenues is not only dishonest, it is reckless. This is not about what is easy, it's about what is necessary for the good of the country and we all need to keep that priority front and center.
As an aside, I believe we should also seize the opportunity to replace our entire income tax code with a simplified, progressive national sales tax. Whether we do that or not, revenues have to increase in some way.
Tax increases alone, however, cannot balance the budget. Spending must also be constrained and this is especially true of entitlement spending because that is the biggest bite of the budget and the most rapidly growing category of expenditures.
To really get a handle on this we should start by doing away with the concept of entitlement itself. In its place should be limited support based on need, not age, along with an increased emphasis on personal responsibility. When the nation is facing such tremendous challenges and debt, how can we justify sending Social Security checks from the government or paying the costs of health care for people who are not in genuine financial need?
It is worth remembering that the "I" in OASDI (the original acronym for what we now call Social Security) actually stands for insurance, not "intitlement." If we are fortunate enough not to be in need of benefits when we reach the age of eligibility for Medicare or Social Security, we should not get them. That is how insurance works.
"But I paid into that, the government promised it to me, and they've got to pay!" said an angry man at a town hall meeting.
The truth is, most of us have already benefited from what we paid into Medicare and Social Security because the prior generation, our parents and grandparents, lived better lives as a result and because we have been protected to a degree by survivor and disability insurance even if we may not have needed to draw on it. What's more, those who demand pay for what they feel they were promised are effectively demanding that today's and tomorrow's children, who had no say in those promises, must somehow bear that burden.
Far too many people today are essentially saying, "Whether or not I need the money, I want it even if it means my children have to pay for my generation's spending and borrowing and even if it puts our nation in debt to potential foreign adversaries." Phrased this way, righteous indignation loses its righteousness pretty quickly, just as it does for those who demand lower taxes at the expense of more debt for the next generation.
The first chapter of my book, "Character, Politics and Responsibility," begins with the subject of character. I am convinced we can meet the great challenges facing our nation, but only if our politicians, and, just as importantly, our citizens, embody core elements of character -- honesty, integrity, responsibility, courage, community and humility.
Deficits and debt are some of our most daunting challenges, but they are not insurmountable if we approach them sincerely and with a willingness to do our part to help. The same is true of energy and the economy, health care, education and countless other challenges.
No political party and no single candidate or elected official has all the answers or deserves all the blame, but we will all deserve blame if we do not set aside bitterness, bickering and irresponsibility and start working together for solutions -- while there is still time.
This is the first in an occasional series of commentaries from Brian Baird, a Democrat who represented the 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington for six terms. He chose not to run for re-election in 2010, and now lives in Edmonds. Baird's recently published book, “Character, Politics and Responsibility,” is available at lulu.com.
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