The federal budget is a hot topic these days in Washington. Both parties are using it as a platform for political posturing for the upcoming 2012 elections. From the media coverage our debt has been getting it would seem that the debate is moving along and we’re getting closer to some sort of deal. While there certainly are some promising discussions, Democrats and Republicans for the most part have retreated to their standard positions. Republicans saying that there will not be tax increases and Democrats refusing to touch Medicare and Social Security. Last week while attending a forum on our debt made up of elected officials, former elected officials and thought leaders it was amazing to see both parties called for a stop to the partisan attacks and demonizing then proceed to attack and demonize the other side.
Below are a few things that we believe need to happen to make real forward progress in the debate over our debt.
1. Elected officials need to understand their role as educators.
Politicians are very good at explaining their position and snapping off one-liners against the other side, but seem to have forgotten their role in educating their constituents about the tough choices we face. Many Americans have got the message that our fiscal path is unsustainable but still don’t understand the basics of the federal budget. Politicians need to explain to their constituents where the money goes. Most Americans still don’t understand what we spend entitlements vs. defense or education. Providing Americans with the basic facts will help in explaining the trade-offs we will need to make.
2. We need to engage in inter-generational dialogue or “Generationship.”
Much of the talk in Washington has been around bipartisanship and the trade-offs between Democrats and Republicans. In the end the trade-offs are not going to be between political parties but between the generations. There is going to have to be discussion between baby boomers and their children, the benefits they will want and the taxes their children will need to pay in order to finance those benefits. We will need to restructure the budget in a way that is fair to multiple generations, not just seniors, otherwise in 10 years you could see a revolt from Millennials who feel constrained and weighed down by the promises and obligations made by those before them.
3. We need to re-frame the debate from spending cuts and tax increases to talking about what we want America to look like in the future.
The budget is more than just a document of numbers. Where the government spends our money is a reflection the values of this country. Do we want low taxes and reduced benefits that place more responsibility on the individual or do we want benefits like we have today that will result in higher taxes? We also need to think about the kinds of jobs and industry we want. How will we make sure we are competitive against other countries? Do we need to spend more on infrastructure, innovation and education? Once we have a vision of what we want our country to be then we can start discussing how we get there. We may discover that we need to spend more in some areas while eliminating others all together.