In the decisive moment in the movie, ‘The Untouchables,’ Sean Connery’s character delivers a death-bed challenge to Elliot Ness, played by Kevin Costner, saying, “What are you prepared to do?” During the rest of that movie, we all found out what he was willing to do…and we also found out that it’s not good enough to just go along with business-as-usual when you know things are not right. We know things are not right…we know our current problems won’t be resolved without our reflective and decisive responses. So, friends…what are you prepared to do?
Today we must figure out that it’s not good enough to just watch passively as our politicians kick the can down the road yet again on the kinds of reforms we need to make our government more responsive and agile, and to make our economy more vital and sustainable. Every citizen has the capacity to participate in a careful and deliberative conversation about our values and our vision of the future. My feeling is this…we must lead by example in public problem-solving, rather than waiting for others to act first or resorting to endless finger-pointing and name-calling.
I remember a conversation with my dad in 1971. As a farmer and as the President of our local Farm Bureau at the time, he was agonizing over a new set of regulations that appeared to be on the horizon. He was certain they would be decided in a way that would make life much more complicated in farming operations, and much more costly. As a know-it-all college student in economics at the time, I offered some advice. I remember sharing a simple analogy…when you’re in a car driving down the road, you’re either the driver or you’re a passenger.
My advice was that he and his colleagues in farming needed to be the drivers…that farmers needed to decide together what actions would resolve the pending dilemmas in ways they could live with…and in ways their detractors could also live with. By trying to defend indefensible positions, they would be allowing others who knew nothing about farming to decide how farming operations should be conducted…they would be passengers only, going wherever a driver who wasn’t willing to ask for directions might want to go. My advice was impertinent and naïve…but I still believe it also had a spark of truth in it. In policy decisions, you have to decide to drive or ride.
So…progressives and Democratic Party leaders…you need to deliberate on entitlement decreases. You can’t afford to let people who don’t believe in the value of entitlements to shape their reform. Entitlements as they exist today are not sustainable long-term. Some major reforms will be needed…so do you want to be the driver or just a passenger? What are you prepared to do?
And…conservatives and Republican Party leaders…you need to deliberate on revenue increases. You can’t afford to let people who don’t believe we need a smaller government and more reliance on capitalism to choose which revenue increases to use. Do the math…our deficit cannot be reduced effectively without some revenue increases, because we simply cannot eliminate our social safety net or our national defense network completely. Some revenue increases will be needed…so do you want to be the driver or just a passenger? What are you prepared to do?
Similarly…moderates and Independent leaders…you need to deliberate on how to understand the tensions and trade-offs of both entitlement decreases and revenue increases. You can’t afford to let partisan leaders who are trapped in their ideologies to decide how to balance the entitlement decreases and revenue increases we will need in the very near future to stabilize our economy. These tensions and trade-offs will be the most critical parts of budget and debt decisions…so do you want to be the driver or just a passenger? What are you prepared to do?
It’s time to lead by example in deliberative, public engagement. According to a recent poll, 60% of the American public believed we must have both entitlement decreases AND revenue increases to control the deficit and to reduce our federal debt…and this was the decision of Simpson-Bowles Commission…and this was one of the key findings of the nation-wide AmericaSpeaks gatherings last year. We lead by example when we’re willing to deliberate wholeheartedly on what is most difficult for us. When we lead in this way, we choose to be drivers rather than passengers. Our problems will be resolved by people who are willing to step up to do what is difficult. So, friends…what are you prepared to do?