Saturday, September 25, 2010

It's Time To Take Some Responsibility, Vol. 1

Governor Deval Patrick talked about generational responsibility when he addressed delegates at the June state Democratic convention in Worcester. I like the term. As a citizen, I feel responsibility to those who will come after me. It runs counter-intuitive to many, though, who want it all and don't want to spend anything for it. I am going to start looking to my elected officials to support initiatives that do not pass on ridiculous burdens to anyone who might still be here when I am long gone. I don't see this as a Democratic or Republican concept. It's a question of being, honestly, a responsible adult.

1. It's time to reduce our national debt.

Vice President Dick Cheney told journalist Bob Woodward a few years back that "deficits don't matter." Now, I am not an economist, and I have not taken a math course since high school, but even I can see that our current way of operating the national budget is not sustainable. We can't keep spending way more than the revenue we bring in. The dollar can't hold up forever.

Reducing the debt means raising taxes and reducing spending. It means reforming large entitlement programs that themselves will become insolvent in only a couple years. It means potentially having less government-funded benefit in the future if the benefit is smarter. The benefits themselves are very important and serve their purpose, but we just can't afford them anymore.

Reducing the debt means making tough decisions about government-funded jobs that, frankly, are waste. At the same time, if the government pulls away funding for certain programs that will generate jobs-- such as the second engine research for the new joint strike fighter, which is up for debate right now in Congress-- the government must invest in programs that over time allow the displaced workers to find new jobs.

The tough decisions mean that politicians have to get rid of the rhetoric when they talk about government waste. Some government programs are wasteful and are pork spending, however other programs that seem specious are actually very important. Republicans have had a field day pointing out what they think are random programs funded by the stimulus bill passed last year. It turns out, if you get beyond the rhetoric, that those funded programs have meaning. Let's get rid of the sound bytes and really discuss waste.

Reducing the debt means talking about raising taxes, and removing the stigma that everyone places on those discussions. Based on our current debt, it's clear the Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans were not smart. And no one in Washington has a good solution for keeping the tax cuts and reducing the debt.

2. It's time help our environment.

I read closely all of the debate about the health care reform bill. However, I was disappointed that the ultimate political fallout from the bill meant that proposed climate change legislation was shelved. To me, the climate bill was more important than the health care bill.

Our use of natural resources is not sustainable. We are dependent on oil from the Middle East, which makes discussions about renewable energy discussions about national security.

It's time to increase dramatically our investment in clean technology. It's time to support projects that would lead to long term national security and economic benefits, even if there are short-term costs.

It's time to end the debate over whether global warming is happening. It is, and now it's time to change our habits and make the changes to stop the damage.

3. It's time to address runaway industries.

President Eisenhower talked about the military industrial complex in his farewell address. He cautioned that the industries supporting the military were self propagating. For reasons probably not as sinister as Oliver Stone would like, the military was growing, if for no other reason because of a combination of psychological (fear) and economic concerns.

The military industrial complex certainly exists today, and for the same reasons Eisenhower probably fretted over, no one speaks of cutting the defense budget.

At the same time, there are other runaway industries in the U.S. that are now large enough that they impact in some detrimental ways how we work, live and think as Americans. Take higher education. All smart kids want to go to very expensive colleges and universities. There is no lack of interest in attending, and so the universities can continue to raise their prices. The U.S. government subsidizes higher education with inexpensive loans and grants.

The runaway growth of higher ed flies in the face of two facts that are just not part of American culture. First is that you don't have to go to an expensive or elite college or university to succeed in life. You certainly don't need to go to one of those institutions to live a happy life (which for many would be a definition of success, I would imagine). Second is the fact that many professions, even advanced ones, do not necessarily require a college degree---certainly they require a lot of advanced training, but going to college is probably not necessary.

Certainly many of my arguments are open to debate, and I welcome them. But the bottom line is I just got a note from my alma mater, Boston University, noting how interest from high school grads is way up. BU costs something like 50K a year now, and the fact that demand is up, even in the midst of the current economic malaise, tells me something is fishy.


I note the three challenges above as they are all directly impacted by the many levels of government. These challenges are a tapestry of smaller discussions and debates. They require discussions about the conventional wisdom our society puts forth. These challenges are not easy.

However, I am putting my elected officials on notice. I want to hear more talk of sustainable policies. I want you to start caring about who comes next, and our responsibility to our children. That might mean unpopular ideas, less sound bytes and difficult discussions. But if you are not expecting them as an elected official you should not have run for office in the first place.

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