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Published: Sunday, 12/9/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Time to address questions about our fiscal future

DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

This is a peculiar season in American politics. The big game is over, the score is in the record book, yet there are more innings to be played. A lame-duck Congress and an exhausted President cannot leave the field.

This is the eighth time since the Nixon years that Congress has gone into overtime to address pressing budget issues. Each time, the crisis was described as the worst ever, though rarely has that been true.

The White House and the GOP House are playing to the wrong audience. They are behaving as if they are trying to win an election rather than sculpt a solution.

The beginning of wisdom in this crisis is that neither side should win. The goal is political resolution, not political absolution.

Maybe this is the time to take a deep breath and dig deep into the fiscal CliffsNotes, using this sober time of reckoning to take on the vital national questions we would prefer to evade, but shouldn’t:

Should the budget be framed as a moral balance sheet or a financial balance sheet?

This question prompts debates about income inequality, social mobility, financial rectitude, and national economic health.

Elements in both parties believe the tax system should be an expression of American values, but they have vastly different values. Some liberals believe — though they deny this is their view — that the purpose of the tax system is primarily to foster fairness.

Some conservatives believe — they’re in denial too — that the tax system should be designed only to create jobs and foster entrepreneurship. Again, neither side should win, or lose, completely.

Have the legal definition of “entitlements” and the popular meaning of the word been so confused that we are on a path to economic disaster?

Tens of millions of aged and infirm Americans legally are entitled to Social Security and Medicare benefits as currently constituted. But just because these social benefits are called “entitlements,” does that mean everyone has to be entitled to them or that they have to be distributed at current levels?

Medicare has not strayed much from its 1965 moorings. It is not surprising that, with the population aging and medicine advancing, Medicare costs are growing.

But these costs can be contained — by adjusting reimbursement formulas and eligibility requirements. Changing conditions require changed regulations.

Social Security is a slightly different matter, though Democrats are chary of acknowledging that. Its role in American life has changed substantially since 1935. It was designed as an income supplement, not a pension, though today that difference has been lost.

During the salad years, the country was happy to ignore that distinction. Now, the notion that Social Security is an entitlement in any way other than in the legal sense needs a full debate.

If nothing else, the country needs to recognize that if it were permissible to enhance these entitlements, as they have been with cost-of-living adjustments, then it’s also possible to reduce them.

Has our political rhetoric so perverted our political system that our words get in the way?

We have just completed a presidential campaign in which the Democrat employed the most virulent class-warfare language of any major-party candidate at least since Franklin Roosevelt.

Mr. Obama now needs to sound like a president looking for a solution to a crisis, not a candidate seeking votes in a campaign.

Mr. Obama was not alone in excess. His opponents described him as a European social democrat if not an outright socialist, which would be news to real socialists, who would instantly dismiss Mr. Obama as a feckless, spineless moderate with a hopelessly innocuous petit-bourgeois outlook.

So, first step: We need to clean up the language before we can clean up the economic mess. Then tackle these questions.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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