In early November, just prior to the mid-term elections in the US, I wrote an essay here at Future Brief titled, The Future of American Politics in a Single Word?. That word was “debt” and I explained why I felt that there are times in history when a single word can sum up a national crisis. Those who accept that “word” and focus on it can get a lot accomplished, while those who do their best to avoid the word or attempt to replace it with a word of their own choosing waste their time and everybody else’s.
These “words” have no power in themselves, their power is only derived from their acceptance as critical by the majority, whether in the US, Tunisia, or another nation. Years can go by, even a couple decades or more, without one of these “power words” (for lack of a better term at the moment) defining social, political, and economic behaviour on a national scale. And the “powers that be” do not always recognise them. Talk to the former Tunisian government or President Mubarak, if you want details. But they do come from time to time. Now is one of those times.
In recent weeks, much has been written on the reaction of US state governors to their financial situation. Two Republicans, Gov. Daniels of Indiana and Gov. Christie of New Jersey, have received special note for their simple, straight-forward, blunt warnings to their citizens that the time has come for dramatic change or face disaster.
But it is not just Republicans. Gov. Brown of California and Gov. Cuomo of New York both have solid liberal Democratic credentials and both are as serious in their concern with the growing burden of state debt as either of their Republican counterparts mentioned. This is not my endorsement of any of these Governors’ plans to address their debt situation, that is up to their voters to decide, but it is meant to be praise of their willingness to look at the “word” and deal with it plainly. I wish them all only the best.
The sadder truth is that this has yet to happen on a national level. Of course, there is only one leader who can speak to all Americans as their leader and that is whomever temporarily holds the office of the American Presidency. Mr. Bush failed in that respect. Mr. Obama continues that failure today.
I had hopes last year. Not especially great hopes, but I had them. I recognised that President Obama had his own “moment of truth” coming along. His bi-partisan “debt commission” was to provide its report on the status of the US debt and what needed to be done. That report was issued on 1 December 2010. It was a very bold work and it was not unanimously approved by the commission’s membership, but it did command a majority that included people of very different political backgrounds.
It was a beginning of what could have been a very serious national discussion that eventually led to a consensus. My hope was that the President would sit down and speak to the American public, pointing out the major findings and recommendations of his commission. He could have made a serious attempt to focus his presidency on the “word”. He could have used it to co-opt that word from his opponents. I didn’t care. I just wanted him to see that report as a tool. Not an end in itself, not something to be accepted and promoted uncritically, but as a tool to help him and us to deal constructively with a national crisis.
It didn’t happen. Three months have passed and I have given up all hope that it will happen. The report’s title is “The Moment of Truth”. Well, The Moment of Truth had its own moment of truth and it has passed. I don’t think I’ve seen as important a document as this die so quickly as this one. Yes, it was dead on arrival. There is no other way to explain it.
I have been very busy in recent weeks. A big part of that has been work on my own analysis of the global political and economic scene to share with you here at Future Brief. But much to my surprise, despite my absence from this site for a month, people still keep on subscribing. I thank you for that, of course, and I feel I do have to share something while working on other matters.
So it is today that I wish to resurrect that dead report, if only briefly. Below you will read the preamble to the report. It is not the most eloquent statement on the topic. This is not Winston Churchill on his first radio address to the British people after assuming the title of Prime Minister. No, nothing that impressive, but pretty decent anyhow, especially for a commission made up of very different people, not a single man or woman addressing the public.
This is my way of showing respect for the dead. It is my way of showing respect for a document prepared by men and women who spent countless hours of argument, negotiation, and shared commitment to create it, only to see it dropped into the trash can of modern-day politics. A link to the full document will be included at the end for those who desire it.
The Moment of Truth
REPORT OF THE NATIONAL COMMISSION ON FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY AND REFORM
Throughout our nation’s history, Americans have found the courage to do right by our children’s future. Deep down, every American knows we face a moment of truth once again. We cannot play games or put off hard choices any longer. Without regard to party, we have a patriotic duty to keep the promise of America to give our children and grandchildren a better life.
Our challenge is clear and inescapable: America cannot be great if we go broke. Our businesses will not be able to grow and create jobs, and our workers will not be able to compete successfully for the jobs of the future without a plan to get this crushing debt burden off our backs.
Ever since the economic downturn, families across the country have huddled around kitchen tables, making tough choices about what they hold most dear and what they can learn to live without. They expect and deserve their leaders to do the same. The American people are counting on us to put politics aside, pull together not pull apart, and agree on a plan to live within our means and make America strong for the long haul.
As members of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, we spent the past eight months studying the same cold, hard facts. Together, we have reached these unavoidable conclusions: The problem is real. The solution will be painful. There is no easy way out. Everything must be on the table. And Washington must lead.
We come from different backgrounds, represent different regions, and belong to different parties, but we share a common belief that America’s long-term fiscal gap is unsustainable and, if left unchecked, will see our children and grandchildren living in a poorer, weaker nation. In the words of Senator Tom Coburn, “We keep kicking the can down the road, and splashing the soup all over our grandchildren.” Every modest sacrifice we refuse to make today only forces far greater sacrifices of hope and opportunity upon the next generation.
Over the course of our deliberations, the urgency of our mission has become all the more apparent. The contagion of debt that began in Greece and continues to sweep through Europe shows us clearly that no economy will be immune. If the U.S. does not put its house in order, the reckoning will be sure and the devastation severe.
The President and the leaders of both parties in both chambers of Congress asked us to address the nation’s fiscal challenges in this decade and beyond. We have worked to offer an aggressive, fair, balanced, and bipartisan proposal – a proposal as serious as the problems we face. None of us likes every element of our plan, and each of us had to tolerate provisions we previously or presently oppose in order to reach a principled compromise. We were willing to put our differences aside to forge a plan because our nation will certainly be lost without one.
We do not pretend to have all the answers. We offer our plan as the starting point for a serious national conversation in which every citizen has an interest and all should have a say. Our leaders have a responsibility to level with Americans about the choices we face, and to enlist the ingenuity and determination of the American people in rising to the challenge.
We believe neither party can fix this problem on its own, and both parties have a responsibility to do their part. The American people are a long way ahead of the political system in recognising that now is the time to act. We believe that far from penalising their leaders for making the tough choices, Americans will punish politicians for backing down – and well they should.
In the weeks and months to come, countless advocacy groups and special interests will try mightily through expensive, dramatic, and heart-wrenching media assaults to exempt themselves from shared sacrifice and common purpose. The national interest, not special interests, must prevail. We urge leaders and citizens with principled concerns about any of our recommendations to follow what we call the Becerra Rule: Don’t shoot down an idea without offering a better idea in its place.
After all the talk about debt and deficits, it is long past time for America’s leaders to put up or shut up. The era of debt denial is over, and there can be no turning back. We sign our names to this plan because we love our children, our grandchildren, and our country too much not to act while we still have the chance to secure a better future for all our fellow citizens.
To download a full copy of this report in PDF format, click here.
Moment of Truth, may you rest in peace.
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