Our view: Debt ceiling

Rational raising depends on rational discourse, leadership

July 18, 2011 

Last week we ran a commentary in these pages by Allan Luks, a professor at Fordham University and a former director of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Luks suggested that charities and other nonprofits lead the way in resolving the nation's debt by calling for an end to most tax deductions for charitable giving.

Charities would lose money. Government revenue would increase, in one example by more than $15 billion a year. In an argument that probably didn't get much traction among nonprofits, Luks said the charities have long played a role as the national conscience and would be doing so again in volunteering to give something up for the long-range good of all.

We've come to a strange pass when a leader in the field of charities and nonprofits, some working for the most needy among us, says it's time to set the example for businesses, industries, individuals and interest groups left and right to put the nation's well-being before self-interest.

Such a call testifies to the lack of political leadership we're seeing from Washington in the drama over the debt ceiling.

For starters, we'd like to hear some straighter talk.

• Stop calling Social Security and Medicare "entitlements." They may well need to change. But let's remember that millions of hard-working Americans, both employers and employees, have for generations paid for these benefits, many with callused hands and long hours. Go ahead, look those people in the eye and tell them they haven't earned their benefits. Then brace yourself.

• Acknowledge that the government will need more revenue to bring its debt down. Yes, that means taxes. And yes, start with rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. President Obama should have stuck to his guns on that score last December. End those tax cuts on Tuesday and well-to-do Americans will still be well-to-do on Wednesday. Drop the rhetoric about class war and job creators. The tentative economic recovery has restored some Wall Street fortunes but hasn't translated into what middle-class Americans need the most -- jobs and a recovery that reaches Main Street, where most of us live.

The Economist, hardly a left-wing publication, recently ran an editorial that called for Republican leaders to drop their absolute resistance to any tax increases, noting that Democrats have agreed in principle to billions in spending cuts over the next 10 years:

"The sticking-point is not on the spending side. It is because the vast majority of Republicans, driven on by the wilder-eyed members of their party and the cacophony of conservative media, are clinging to the position that not a single cent of deficit reduction must come from a higher tax take. This is economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical."

As that editorial pointed out, this was something that Ronald Reagan understood in the 1980s.

There was plenty of contention then. But the '80s look like an era of high statesmanship compared to some of what we're seeing now.

• On the Democratic side, President Obama needs to be specific about cuts. What programs? How much and when? He's called for all hands "to eat their peas." All right, but it's one thing to say everyone is going to sacrifice; it's another to spell out who, when and how much. And that's what the president will have to do.

It looks from here that one of the reasons the Republicans have been able to carry their fight with Obama so fiercely is that he hasn't offered the nation a real alternative. He's shown a willingness to compromise but hasn't shown us a plan and a purpose. Serious federal spending cuts are in the nation's future. How will we make them work?

Right now it looks like we'll have a short-term solution to the debt ceiling increase -- a time-buying compromise that will keep Uncle Sam paying the bills while the political battle goes on. If that's all we can manage now, so be it. And after?

We'd like the president and the leaders of both parties to concentrate on the answer to that good, practical American question: What works? As we draw closer to the 2012 election, that's probably too much to ask. But it's just what we need.

BOTTOM LINE: Debt-ceiling talks need a strong dose of leadership that looks beyond self-interest.

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