Can’t They Play Nice?

As I watched the developments to resolve the “fiscal cliff” unfold, I couldn’t help to think about a student who waits for the last minute to do his homework.  Actually, the student missed the deadline.  The teacher gave an extension.

The assignment, a big paper, was handed out months ago in order devote enough time to research the topic thoroughly, analyze the data carefully, and write the paper thoughtfully.  It was in important paper.  So, what happened?  We got some increases in tax rates, not much in spending reductions, an extension for unemployment insurance – basically, not much and certainly not enough to respond to the assignment adequately.  The paper was thin, probably a couple of pages in the end.

Pretty disappointing.  I’d give the student a C- if it were handed in on time.  However, since the student blew the extension, I’d ultimately and generously score it a D.

The resolution of the “fiscal cliff” was terrible because everyone was unwilling to be honest. The GOP is too extreme and too self-righteous to be a real political party.  The Democrats, however, are unable or unwilling to confront the reality around social insurance programs like Medicare and Social Security.  The President couldn’t bring himself to lay out the fiscal realities we face as a nation.  They all failed us.  I also don’t have a lot of confidence in any of them (and that includes new members of Congress) to resolve it soon.

I’m not sure if our current political leadership is blind or stupid to the realities this nation faces over the next few decades.  Maybe I can give them the benefit of the doubt by saying they are well-versed in their particular perspectives on the role of government for our future, but they are absolutely blind and deaf to the perspectives on the other side.

I only know what I read in the papers (as I don’t watch television news), but I can say that the GOP’s overarching theme is on target – this nation will reach a point when we will be overwhelmed with the cost of social insurance programs.  However, their costs will not bankrupt us as a nation as much as they will crowd out spending for other programs.  The Democratic position that believes government has a role to play to ensure the common good should not be doubted.  Should we pursue deficit reduction now in a slow economy?  No.  Cutting back on government spending during an economically slow time doesn’t help the economy as we’ve already seen here and in Great Britain (and Japan in the 1990s).

One problem lies with the current belief of many in the GOP that the government has little to no responsibility to ensure the common good.  Although simplistic, there is a lot of truth in stating that the GOP seeks to privatize almost most aspects of our lives.  The solution to Medicare that Paul Ryan proposed and Romney sort of danced with and away from simultaneously basically shed government’s responsibility for health care by replacing it with the crappy system that we have now, private health insurance.  (A system that costs a lot to operate for pretty poor health outcomes.)  Although not loudly stated, the GOP platform also advocated privatizing Social Security, too.

Another problem lies with the Democrats’ fear to make major structural changes to the programs that have been around for generations. They are unable to think realistically and creatively about these programs, especially in light of the demographic realities of an aging nation.  Fareed Zakaria recently noted in an article in Foreign Affairs that today there are 4.6 workers to support each retiree, but in 25 years that will drop to 2.7 workers.  He also noted that in 1960 government entitlement programs took one-third of the federal budget, whereas those programs took two-thirds of the budget in 2010.  Finally, he observed that today we spend $4.00 for every citizen over 65 years old, but $1.00 for every child under 18 years old.

I wish the GOP weren’t so fiercely unrealistic about the role and responsibility of government to ensure the common good.  I also wish the Democrats question what that role and responsibility of government entails in order to ensure the common good.  I also wish the president would tell the American public the reality we face as a nation.  It’s not that we have to privatize government programs, such as social security and Medicare.  Rather, they need restructuring.

Social Security for instance could probably raise the income cap to increase revenue for the system.  We could also acknowledge that some people will retire with enough money not to require Social Security and that means testing is not really a bad thing if it allows the limited pool of money to provide benefits for all people who really need it.

Medicare is harder, but begins with controlling health care costs.  Politically as a nation, we really need to be honest with ourselves and ask how is it that other nations have lower per capita health care costs and have better outcomes.  Ironically, it may mean expanding Medicare to insure more people which will move us closer to a single-payer model.  (Noting that single-payer models seem to have better health outcomes at a lower per capita cost.)

Here’s reality.  Mandatory spending includes Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and debt service.  Together they comprise almost 60% of the federal budget.  The remaining 40% is discretionary spending of which just more than 50% of that is dedicated to the Defense Department.

And while reforming agriculture subsidies is important and reviewing programs to increase their efficacy while lowering their costs is appropriate, until political leadership tackles the unsustainable structure of the federal budget, they will never get an A.

Furthermore, it’s not about some “grand bargain” that raises taxes and cuts spending.  It’s really being honest to ourselves to ask what are our priorities as a nation while acknowledging we can’t have everything.  Those priorities are more like themes than specific budget items.  They include, but are not limited to:

  • Are we willing to invest our future in our children knowing that we might have to re-balance our spending among the different generations?
  • Do we want to upgrade our infrastructure and what are the appropriate roles for government and the private sector?
  • What is the appropriate role of each level of government: federal, state, and local?
  • What are our overarching goals for our membership in the global community and what role does the military have in it and how do we restructure it to meet that purpose?
  • How does the government ensure and support the common good?

This conversation is not happening on Capitol Hill.  I don’t hear much about it from the White House either.  I think our political leadership is locked into a mindset about leadership which is all about power, not servanthood.

Power, which is necessary in governance, is more than just having your perspective or position prevail over others.  A dimension which seems lost is one’s approach to power.  In Mark 9:33-35 the disciples were arguing about which one of them was greatest.  Jesus replied, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  Implicitly, leadership includes humility, something that I think is lacking in a lot of what passes for political leadership.

Translated to Washington, it means remembering that their leadership rests upon the consent of the governed.  (Given Congress’ poll numbers, that consent is pretty thin.)  It also requires acknowledging that self-righteousness has no place in governance.  Furthermore, cooperation and reconciliation are more more important that any single perspective prevailing.

We’ll really get nowhere as a nation if our political leadership functions like schoolyard taunts and bullying as it does now.

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About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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