Point of View

We the voters own that debt

November 15, 2012 

Venomous, virulent and vituperative – these are just some of the adjectives the letter V provides to describe the partisanship widely blamed for our political paralysis.

Conventional wisdom holds that if our leaders could just put aside their differences and strike a meaningful compromise, we could fix our broken system.

It’s a nice thought. It is also wrong. The single biggest obstacle to real and necessary change in America is not poisonous partisanship but crippling consensus.

For all the searing attack ads and biting barbs traded by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, no one dared touch the great third rail of American politics, the one thing that almost all Democrats and Republicans hold dear: our right to a free lunch.

America probably went broke sometime during the Reagan administration, so we need to come up with another word to describe our debt, which is $16 trillion and growing. Both candidates pretended to address this, the most pressing issue of our times. They even claimed to offer different visions for tackling it.

In fact, they spoke in a single voice, doubling down on the free lunch.

Obama’s most concrete proposal was to raise taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.” That the president seems to consider individuals who make $200,000 a year millionaires is beside the point. His message was clear to 99 percent of Americans: I will not ask you for a dime to dig us out of this hole and, furthermore, you and your children will receive all the benefits now provided by the government.

Romney promised even more. His tax plan suggested that the best way to clear our books was to give every working American a 20 percent tax cut! Taking a page from Obama’s playbook, he said he would pay for that largess by closing loopholes on … the wealthy.

Though pushed repeatedly by Obama and the press, Romney refused to identify which loopholes he would close, in the sure knowledge that his opponents would bludgeon him with those specifics. Candidates can win by promising to make tough choices but not by telling us what they are.

In addition, neither candidate put forward a serious plan to reform entitlements. Obama pledged to protect the programs that are bankrupting us: Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Romney made a weak pledge to pursue reforms while pounding home the message that benefits would not be reduced for people currently enrolled in those programs.

We Americans like to blame our leaders, giving low marks to the president and even lower ones to Congress on most fiscal issues. But the fault lies not with them, but with us.

For years we have sent them an unmistakable message: If you want my vote, do not raise my taxes and do not cut my programs. Those parameters set, we are now making a third demand: Get our fiscal house in order.

It would be easier to square the circle.

In his keynote address at the Republican National Convention, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appeared to deliver tough truths: “Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular,” he declared, “to do what is easy and say ‘yes,’ rather than to say ‘no’ when ‘no’ is what’s required. It’s been easy for our leaders to say not us, and not now, in taking on the tough issues. And we’ve stood silently by and let them get away with it.”

Unfortunately, his truth-telling was just another dose of people-pleasing pabulum. Politicians say “yes” when they should say “no” because we will crucify them if they don’t. We, the people, have not stood silently by as we hurtled toward the fiscal cliff. We have egged them on, threatened them with ouster if they refused to do our will.

The CNN exit poll found that only 13 percent of voters believed that everyone’s taxes should be raised, another 47 percent were happy to see them raised only on the rich. When asked if taxes, in general, should be raised to reduce the deficit, only 33 percent of exit poll voters said yes.

Our representatives are reconvening in Washington to confront what has been called the fiscal cliff – the economic challenges posed by the scheduled expiration of the “Bush tax cuts” and the sequestration deal struck last year. The cliff is a poor metaphor. We are, more accurately, standing under a fiscal windmill. Let’s hope we avoid the blade coming toward us. If we do, there’s no time to relax because another blade is on the way, and then another and another.

Yes, we need real leadership in Washington. But it will not be enough for our elected officials to strike a deal. They must also speak honestly to us about why we must sacrifice the government we want for the government we need.

We need them to convince us of a simple truth: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

J. Peder Zane, formerly books editor of The N&O, is chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s University.

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