In his new book, The Price of Civilization, Jeffrey Sacks outlines his concerns about the sharp rise in poverty (100 million Americans in or near poverty), the weakening of the middle class, and the increased distrust of government as practiced in Washington.
While all this is deeply disturbing, what truly got my attention is our failure to concern ourselves with our future. “We are paralyzed, rather by a shared lack of serious attention to our future”, he observes referring to both political parties.
Further our own satisfaction levels have not increased over the past 35 years while other societies have moved past us placing the United States in 19th place according to Gallup polls.
It is difficult to discuss this subject without sounding pessimistic but the reality is that we, the adults, owe our children much more than what we are now giving them. It may well be time for us to look at ourselves, take ownership of the moment, and remind all institutions that they work for us, the people, and not the other way around.
Last week, I spoke to a group at the Church of the Good Shepherd in south Minneapolis and explored some of the reform possibilities. The very first reform is to do precisely what this community church is doing and that is bringing people together and broadening our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.
There is no magical potion that will eliminate our anxieties, our sense of powerlessness, or restore the American Dream. It will come about when communities of people come together and decide to restore the word “public” to “public service” and remind all of our leaders – private, public and non-profit, that no one achieved success without the aid and support of others. It is this sense of togetherness that represents our very first step towards balancing our democracy.
With this in mind, it is imperative that we again and continuously recognize that all elected and appointed officials work for us. They are our employees.
This may sound simple but it will be a serious challenge to bring back the more traditional role of public service. Huge blocs of monies have engulfed our political system and these monies have defined interests that may be contrary to the public good. Currently, their power well exceeds ours.
As a result, an increasing number of people feel powerless. Individually, I would argue, we probably are powerless. But, as a community we have the power of the ballot box. We have to recognize that power and use it.
Over the next several blogs, I will outline some specifics but in this one I am going to deal with some very basic approaches that we should insist be implemented by Congress on a bi-partisan basis.
I. Adopt the bi-partisan report of the Bowles-Simpson Debt Reduction Commission. It has significant advantages possessed by no other plan.
a. It is bi-partisan, well researched and has passed all examinations by experts.
b. It clearly represents a “share the pain” effort. I truly appreciate the philosophy that we are all in this together and, therefore, must share in the sacrifice.
c. It inflicts minimum pain and most of it is inevitable, e.g., raising the age of social security retirement, some loss of mortgage interest deduction, etc.
d. It meets financial targets that bring us within reach of balancing the budget.
e. Time is now an enemy and this plan will do a lot to stabilize the markets and help prevent more deterioration. It is ready to go.
II. When a war is declared, an automatic tax is imposed to pay for that war. We cannot continue to ship these costs to a future generation and then display bumper stickers toting our patriotism. We must pay our way.
III. As in Number II, upon a declaration of war, a draft is instituted. We have placed an unbearable burden on too few and no burden on the many. War becomes all too acceptable as long as someone else fights it and pays for it.
IV. Eliminate the automatic pay raise for members of Congress. This is a privilege that too few in our society enjoy and is clearly out of line in this economy. They can tighten their belts in a way that matches their rhetoric.
V. Eliminate the “franking privilege” whereby members of Congress can send us their political propaganda at our expense. Further, they have the audacity to exempt these mailings from campaign limit laws.
It is my hope that we put aside our more narrow partisan concerns and advance proposals such as these that are relatively simple, make sense, and restore power to the people. Once we recognize our power then we have the obligation to exercise it responsibly, starting now.