by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
So, President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission headed by former Wyoming Senator Alan K. Simpson (R) and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles (D) has issued its preliminary report.
It is a stark, sobering document. It says, in glaringly specific ways, that we as a nation have blithely spent too much too long, unconcerned like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman: “What me worry/”
Well, we have partied and now wake up to a colossal headache of global proportions. Now what?
President Obama, understanding that Congress needs help with this hot potato,early on in his term issued an Executive Order on the matter. Per this order, a panel of 18 members was created; 12 are members of Congress. Six are private citizens of impeccable pedigree. Fourteen of these commissioners must agree before the panel can send any recommendations to Congress, which they must do shortly.
What the commissioners recommend… so far
The commissioners were given a breath taking charge by the president: either recommend $4 trillion dollars in budget cuts and savings and/or raise that sum in tax revenues. Everything was on the table; nothing was sacrosanct and inviolable. In short, “deal with it, boys and girls, for the good of the nation!”
The commissioners, selected for a gravely serious purpose, took the matter seriously, and have produced a serious document… the more so since others both within the Congress and out continue to play “gotcha politics” on the matter. Not so the commissioners. They set about their vital work with a will that promises to be sadly lacking in a Congress which will ultimately decide on what to do. Here is the heart of what they reported.
Item: deep cuts in domestic and military spending
Item: gradual 15-cents-per-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax
Item: limiting or eliminating popular tax breaks (including the home mortgage deduction) in return for lower rates.
Item: benefit cuts and an increased retirement age for Social Security.
It is all sensible, logical, necessary and desirable. It is also DOA because only the commissioners have the will to make changes… and they don’t have the power to save a penny or increase tax revenues Thus, under the heading “Fools rush in where angels fear to trend”, here are my thoughts and recommendations. Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, take note.
1) We live in supremely selfish times where no one is willing to give up anything.
- “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do for you.”
- I start from the proposition that making the necessary changes to the budget will arouse the wrath of Americans nationwide, whatever Tea Party budget- balancing tenets they espouse. Everyone entering into this necessary budget shrinking debate should expect two certain things: up front high-blown patriotic rhetoric about sacrifices willingly made ; behind the scenes bare knuckle fighting of the crudest variety to protect the haves… no matter how grossly illogical and piggish their benefits.
2) Tackle Social Security first. It is the easiest to rehabilitate.
- It is time someone told the American people, who treat tampering with Social Security as the third rail in politics (touch it and die), the truth. The entitled, immovable age of 65 is the cynical legacy of Europe’s most successful politician, Prince Otto von Bismarck. He’s the man who engineered the unification of Germany. Looking for a way to undermine the burgeoning late 19th century Socialist movement (very strong in Germany) he asked actuaries to find a number where most men would be dead and only voteless women left. Pensions would begin then. Otto and his conservatives get the credit… but have to pay little! Actuaries said age 65 would do the trick… and so it has remained.
- Since Bismarck’s day, however, there have been huge improvements in health and longevity, thereby making the number 65 less an “entitlement” than a fantastic gift from the government for many years, to the detriment of succeeding (and rightly concerned) generations who foot the bill.
- Note: Congress should bite this bullet early and deep. Whereas the president’s commissioners want to raise the age by gradual stages to year 69, instead make the magic number go to 71 for those in reasonable health who can work. It’s the right thing.
3) Make each member of the Congress take a pledge to eschew “gotcha politics” on this matter.
- In our brutally tit for blood-letting tat Congress to say A (like “you voted to slash military spending”) immediately fuels the opposition to return (B) a blow of equal or greater intensity (like “you voted to gut all domestic spending programs”). This gets us no where and fuels national rage about “do nothing” congresses.
- Members of Congress raise money to clobber each other. That’s what they do. They’ve been doing it since Minute 1 of the new republic. Now some aspiring statesman should, in the name of getting to yes with this budget imbroglio, say “basta!” and ask all members, on both sides of the aisle, to join him and appreciably move towards the solution we must have. Make working together politically attractive and a “must”; do this and the politically pusillanimous who constitute the core of the Congress will rush to embrace it.
4) Urge the president to spend his (admittedly diminished) political capital to solve this problem — even at the risk of losing a second term.
- Americans love big men who focus on big things which benefit the nation in big ways. Let our now wounded president do this and secure a truly significant and majestic legacy.
- President Obama could rise to the occasion and say, “The issue of securing a balanced, lean, fair budget and with it the sound future of the nation is so important, I intend to make it my Number 1 priority. It is crucial that America get this benefit, and if it costs me my second term, so be it. It is the right thing to do.” (P.S. Not only would this be statesmanship in the grand manner, but this wounded man would sail to a second term and a legacy of substance and real worth.)
5) Explain to America what is at stake. Then sell it to the nation.
- John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, was a marketing man. He stayed behind the scenes, raised money and gave sharp, sensible advice. Before the crucial Wisconsin primary in 1960, he told his son Jack that they would sell him “like soap flakes.” They did… he romped in the primary…. and got a crucial boost on the road to the presidency.
- President Obama et al need to do the same thing now. Hire the best marketing brains on earth… brainstorm every benefit. Then go out and sell it to the nation. This matter of the budget is not the most difficult problem this country has ever faced; it’s entirely solvable. What is necessary is to enlighten Americans, enlist their support and show them what to do. Then lock the Congress in a room and tell them to cut deals until the deed is done. And because cutting deals is what they do best, in due course the thing will be done. Then spread the credit, take the White House photographs… and start the next spending spree. For that is the American way.
Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc., where small and home-based businesses learn how to profit online. _________________________________________