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Apr. 19 2010 - 2:45 pm | 220 views | 2 recommendations | 16 comments

Don’t expect good leadership without good ‘followership’

The jostling over who is responsible for our unsustainable federal deficit disguises the real problem encompassing the greatest threat to the nation’s future.

As Matt Miller suggested in an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post, it is not the debt that is unsustainable –it’s our politics that we can no longer afford.

Democrats are fond of pointing out that the Bush Administration took office with a budget surplus only to leave town having added $4 trillion to the debt – a 70% increase in the federal debt during the Bush era. Republicans are equally pleased to direct your attention to the Obama budget that projects a staggering increase of $9 trillion more in debt over the next ten years.

While criticisms of the Bush record on debt and the projected future debt contemplated by the Obama Administration are both fair, the reality is that there is nothing we can do about the Bush legacy. It’s history. However, we can still do something about the future debt – but only if the politicians will stop using the issue as just another political football and get serious about fixing it.

Sadly, they won’t – unless we make it worth their while to do so. And we only do that by getting smart on what constitutes fixing a problem and force the pols to propose and debate real solutions  versus blaming the problem on someone else.

Part of dealing with the issue is regaining some national equilibrium in terms of how we view the problem of the debt – beginning with accuracy in information.  When politicians – seeking to cash in on populist discontent – deal in false information, they often succeed in personally benefitting from whipping up the masses. But, in the process, they are using the instant gratification of claiming a vote to punish generations of Americans to come.

Not cool.

But as we make the effort to become ‘good followers’, we must remember that we are all viewing the future from the particularly difficult period in which we find ourselves. While we’ve had good reason to be gloomy in our predictions, it does now appear that the economy is beginning to recover, and with that recovery will come increased revenues in the federal coffers. So, while we can continue to argue over whether or not it was necessary to incur large deficits while in the throes of the most serious recession since the Great Depression in order to keep the economy from sliding into something far more unacceptable, what’s done is done. Let’s not let the politicians continue to use this as an excuse not to face up to our deficits.  While I, for one, find that the economists who appear to have less of a political axe to grind believe that the stimulus was necessary, I understand that others disagree. Either way, the good news is that job and business growth will begin to improve at some point, removing the need to continue the deficit to make up the gap. Let’s move on. There is no upside in continuing to be sucked into an argument when we are never going to have an answer. When the jobs come back, some will argue that stimulus was the right thing. Others will say the jobs would have returned faster had we done it different. And you and I will never really know.

Whether it is constantly reminding the GOP that “George Bush did it too” or buying into anti-stimulus arguments to hammer Obama when we will never really know if it was right or wrong, good followership demands that we not waste time on this nonsense and reward politicians for going forward, not sideways or backwards.

That said, one doesn’t have to be Chairman of the Fed to understand that continuing the current spending trends in both entitlements and the pursuit of the empire will lead the nation over the financial cliff.

So, what must we do?

We have to create a political environment where the self-interest of the politicians serves the shared interest we all have in reducing the debt. While both parties will tell you that each is fighting to accomplish just this, they are not – and we know it. Grandstanding stunts blocking unemployment benefits when we all know that the benefits will be extended once the politicians get to score their points, is not reducing debt. It’s increasing electability for politicians cashing in on anger. Why let them do that, whether they be Democrat or Republican? Why not tell them that we’re smarter than that?

On the entitlement front, nobody in their right mind can believe that we can continue the current social security arrangement while keeping Obama’s promise to never raise taxes on those who earn under $250,000 a year. The math just doesn’t add up. We either have to increase the tax or change the entitlement.

Yet, this is not something neither Republican nor Democrat candidates want to tell you.

So why not tell them that we get it, we’re tired of diversions and we are going to reward them based on what they do to fix it and not on their successes in blaming it all on the other guys?

There are solutions to Soc. Security. If it were up to me, I’d be trimming Social Security benefits granted to wealthy Americans who don’t really need it. But this scares the hell out of progressive, Democrats who don’t want to have to run on anything that includes the words “social security cuts.” Fine. But how about some real ideas?

It’s not just about social entitlements. At some point don’t we need the politicians to face up to the reality that we cannot continue our imperialistic aspirations abroad, stationing troops in countries that long ago stopped being relevant locations for permanent American troop bases?

Of course, GOP candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, don’t want that conversation. They are terrified at looking weak on national security, a charge they fear would come if they supported pulling back on much of our antiquated national security expenditures.

The bottom line is that cutting the federal deficit makes for very bad politics. The reality of this is summed up nicely in the piece by Matt Miller referenced earlier.

“We refuse to risk our hold on power,” our leaders are essentially telling us, “by coming clean on our own about the tax increases and spending cuts we know are needed to pass a sound nation to our children.” Thus “political leadership” becomes an oxymoron. Odds are we’ll fix the budget once enough of us show our leaders it’s safe to do what needs to be done; think Perot getting 20 percent of the vote in 1992. But the price of having to wait for good “followership” instead of real leadership is high. For now, this price includes the reality that neither major party has a political strategy that includes solving our biggest problems. And that, more than our rising debt, is scary.
Via Washington Post

Miller has it exactly right.  We only fix this when we, the voters, develop good “followership” and adopt a metric for judging politicians on what they are actually doing to reduce debt rather than the amount of mud they can sling at the other side. Until the public short circuits the personal power dramas our politicians act out on a daily basis, we will continue to be played by these people who care only for continuing their grasp on power- and the losers will be the generations to come.


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  1. collapse expand

    Amen! However, I think we will need to have some sort of national dialogue on our collective priorities before we can send signals to our politicians that it is “safe” to make the tough decisions. Do we want guns or butter? It seems like we will have to have some sort of semi-coherent idea about what we want as a people in order for this to work. I don’t think we are there yet.

  2. collapse expand

    Hello Rick,

    You have missed the key point. The Republican Party wants a crippling debt and huge deficit. That is there political objective. By running up a debt so huge that it prevents government activity, they achieve their stated goals of reducing government “intervention” to a minimum. It is called “Starving the Beast”, a concept developed and championed by Grover Norquist. The huge debt is not the result of short-sighted personal self-interest by individual politicians but long-term ideological planning achievement by the Republican Party.

    • collapse expand

      I dont’ really buy that. I know what Grover Norquist came up with – but it is untenable in the real life of a politician. To me, suggesting that this is the overall GOP agenda is like saying the the Democrat/Obama agenda is national socialism. Just isn’t true.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello Rick,

        1) The Republican Party *says* it is against government interfering in society (like mine safety for example). Big deficits achieve this goal.

        2) The Republican party *actually has* run-up huge debts and deficit.

        In other words, they do what they say and say what they do. I am not putting words in their mouth or actions to their hands, both are theirs, not mine. If you think otherwise, you have to conclude that they are simply stupid and naive.

        I might disagree with the Republican Party but I know that they are not stupid. They can do the same math that you or I can, maybe even better. The Republican Party is a trained and disciplined organization that knows what it wants and how to get it. Our huge debt is a deliberate and calculated part of their efforts.

        You can love them or hate them but do not underestimate them.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          How do you figure that huge deficits achieve the goal of government interfering in society? You have to consider the ultimate result of huge federal deficits which is hyperinflation. I’ve never known a Republican contributor of any power or weight who favored his or her money becoming worthless. It doesn’t add up.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            Hello Rick,

            There was once a fellow who jumped off the Empire State Building. As he passed the 10th flood someone yelled out “How is it going?”. His reply was “So far, so good”.

            Since 1981 the Republicans have been reducing taxes, increasing spending, and running up huge debts and the world has not ended. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil said that when he tried to resist tax cuts, Vice President Cheney told him: “Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter.” During the 2004 presidential campaign, a senior administration official put their worldview more bluntly: “Name me one person who has lost an election because of the deficit.”

            “So far, so good”.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Rick, with each passing day I read you, Kilkenny and Taibbi coming up with excellent solutions to what most average/uninformed people consider difficult, demoralizing, impossible problems. I am completely convinced the 3 of you could turn the SCourt, Presidency and Congress, respectively, around overnight and still have time for brunch the next day. Your ideas are great.

    But that’s all they are, is ideas. Ideas that will die on the wind because unfortunately, none of the three of you have the power to enact them.

    Until the underlying structure that keeps the plutocracy and the status quo in power is removed, these great ideas will continue to die on the breeze. Perhaps its time to stop talking about ideas and instead talk about the unthinkable–solid techniques and methods to dismantle the plutocratic structure and rebuild a more fair and just one that can actually employ the great, practical and simple ideas the three of you continually offer.

    At this point in our broken politics, you can’t possibly expect redress from the very system that exacerbates the problems and stymies change. It’s time to put the ideas aside and gut the underlying structure. We need you guys to point out ways to do this given your expertise.

    Hanging new ornaments on an old, dead tree is pointless. We need a new, living tree before any change is going to be realized. We need you guys to start talking about how to get there from here. Kill and rebuild the structure, and then implement the solutions en masse.

    • collapse expand

      I see your point but would be quick to point out that, unlike Matt and Allison, my professional life involves more than writing. I do get politically involved in pursuing some of the objectives I write about through my consultancy and relationships with political leaders on the state and federal level. I don’t really write about specific projects I’m working on, but they are often tied to items I discuss in the post. By way of example, I discuss the FQHC in a recent post. I am very actively working on a project that would create a public/private partnership to bring FQHC centers directly onto the grounds of non-profit hospitals to relieve pressure on ER’s by sending non emergency cases (people who think they can only come to the ER for treatment because they have no insurance) right next door to a FQHC center where they get get the proper care at a much lower price to us all The result would be to provide primary care to those who come to the ER for those needs while freeing up the ER for real emergencies.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    We need a true simulation so that we can play with the numbers. That is they should be able to
    go down to this level of detail: that a person with an income in the range of $80,000 to $100,000
    with two kids in an expensive suburb, whose income, 30% comes from
    investments and the rest from working should pay thirty four percent
    in taxes.

    and as Paul Krugman pointed out, our Federal Government is basically an insurance company with an army, so we need to drill down on the “entitlement side”

    o need to say how much money
    a Colonel who had fifteen years of active duty when he lost his hand to
    a road side bomb in Afghanistan, how much money should a eighty-year old
    man earn from Social Security after working 160 quarters and whose total
    input was $100,000. And who do these interact and what is the optimal
    way to have people weigh their desire for public programs and their desire
    to keep the tax burden down, an issue raised at least half a century ago.

    Dr. Newman should be congratulated for his
    National Budget Simulation, but it does not
    get down to the level of detail we need.
    (He himself refers to it as simple.)www.nathannewman.org/nbs/
    Here are some good blog posts and articles on
    the issue of tax burden.

    We have had many good analyses of how the income tax burden is distributed
    and whether the wealth or the workers are paying enough, and that half
    of Americans are not paying any income tax but may be paying
    Social Security tax as well as state and local taxes.

    1.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2010/04/inside_the_returns_of_americas.html
    2.

    http://finance.yahoo.com/news/Nearly-half-of-US-households-apf-1105567323.html?x=0
    3.

    And a Dangerous Economist Posting on April Ninth 2010, “Does Everyone Pay
    Taxes?”
    4.

    http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125991138

    Dr. James Buchanan talked about the tendency
    towards deficits when benefits are specific
    and taxes are general James P. Buchanan, Public Finance in Democratic Processes:
    Fiscal Institutions and Individual Choice, way
    back in 1967.

  5. collapse expand

    The first step towards handling our debt is to become a value added nation again. We must produce. It is not acceptable to say that you must have a college degree to be a productive member of society. We need manufacturing.

    No matter how many cuts we make in “entitlement programs” they will not work unless we stop viewing hedge funds and other market manipulators as a good for liquidity and therefore society. We must stop churning out graduates with majors in financial engineering.

    And once we return value added jobs to the country, we must prevent the corporations that house those jobs from paying their taxes in other countries while hiding their liabilities in others. Free trade has its positive aspects, but when it is allowed to run amok, it becomes a race to the bottom.

    When you look at the statistics on the amount of money that people have saved for retirement, I don’t know how many entitlement programs we can really cut or reduce. But we can deal with the fundamentals of the economy.

    • collapse expand

      All sounds good. Did you think it is possible to once again bring manufacturing back in the USA?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Of course it is. If you look at automotive manufacturing for example, a lot of foreign car companies are now making cars in the US, and even expanding US manufacturing.

        We may need some more protectionist trade policies to make it happen to the level that I want, but I strongly suspect that good business judgment will return many of these jobs to the US is due time. Sooner or later, the companies that use offshore labor will get tired of being screwed by their foreign counterparts. It is impossible to redress any wrongs committed against you by these people, especially the Chinese. Most companies will not even try to sue because there is no way to enforce the judgment. When you look at some of the stories of businesses getting screwed by chinese corporations (which are really just extensions of the government) you cant help but wonder what it will take to cause a sufficient loss of confidence to return the jobs to the US.

        Furthermore, there has to be a tipping point where consumers demand made in the USA. From poison dog food to lead tainted childrens toys to Chinese drywall, sooner or later the desire for cheap will be trumped by the desire to not purchase dangerous shoddy products.

        I am strangely optomistic.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          I’d like you to be right – but I’m less optimistic. You’re right that legal redress is often impossible in other countries, however the cost of this pales in comparison to the dramatically lower costs of manufacturing.

          To expect that the imbalance in manufacturing will change would be to expect that the deal we have wiht Chine (you produce and we’ll be your consumer) would have to be dramatically altered. How likely is that when China holds such a huge part of our national debt?

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    Your idea on s.s. payouts is gutsy, but common sense too, it is a kind of insurance as you have said before. We have to do something, rational talk is a good start.

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    About Me

    I am an attorney in Southern California, and a frequent writer, speaker and consultant on health care policy and politics. To that end, I am active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Based in beautiful Santa Monica, California, I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to be a contributing editor to True/Slant. I've recently finished a book designed to make the health care debate understandable to the average reader, and expect it to be out in the next five months or earlier. In my 'spare time', I continue to write for television and, occasionally, for comic books.

    My checkered past includes stints in creative writing and production for television where I did strange things like founding the long running show "Access Hollywood" and serving, for many years, as the president of the Marvel Character Group where I had the distinct pleasure of being one of Spider-man's bosses.

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