Monday, June 28, 2010

Our Budget, Our Economy - America Has Spoken...

So what happens when 300-400 regular citizens join another few thousand others to come up with solutions to close the federal deficit by 2025? I'm trying to come up with something clever, but I have to agree with what Dallas Morning News reporter, Todd Gilliam says most of us found out: it ain't easy.

America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy was just such an effort. Linked to 18 other cities by a rather remarkable set of technological gizmos, we were able to join people in Philadelphia, Detroit and other cities, in learning about and making critical decisions about what taxes, if any, should be raised and what categories, if any, should be cut. A crash course in what the federal budget includes, the experts there at resource and the knowledge around the table all helped make this a pretty productive and interesting way to spend a Saturday. It was bi-partisan (although not as bi-partisan as some might have liked), and the people who took the time to participate appeared to take this opportunity seriously.

I was at table 17. Ours was one of those tables that could have used a little more diversity. There were 10 of us. I was the only African-American. There was one youth who was one of two conservatives at the table. Although I classify myself as liberal to moderate, the eight of us were probably looking at this through a more moderate lens together than if you had caught us individually.

And I think DMN has it right, the intimidating challenge of the day was not lost on very many of us.

""This was a sort of reality check," said lawyer Mike Holloway, one of about 400 Dallas-area residents who devoted their day to learning about the debt problem and trying their hand at solving it."

"And Holloway's table only had to find consensus among eight people."

""We only got halfway there," said the table's volunteer facilitator, Michael Higgins. "Nobody's willing to give anything up.""

"A management consultant, Higgins admitted to strong feelings about the debt problem, all of which he studiously kept to himself."

"This was Murphy's take: "We're trying to get $1.2 trillion," he said. "Can you imagine a bunch of partisan politicians sitting around, with 100 lobbyists tapping them on the shoulder, trying this? Daunting!""

At our table, we actually got to the $1.2 trillion mark. As a matter of fact, we got to $1.24 trillion. We did it with, among other things a 20% on people in the top two tax brackets, along with an extra 5% tax on people making over $1 million a year. We also supported a 15% cut in military spending. We suggested something else (which we were able to 'write in', support for): a substitute for a proposed value added tax (VAT) which would have generated $399 billion in revenue; a 'luxury tax' of about $200 billion. We voted on raising the limit on taxable earnings to cover 90% of total earnings. We didn't touch Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security. Nor did we repeal or reduce health care reform.

Obviously these weren't the only areas we chose and equally as obvious is the fact that the two conservatives at the table weren't satisfied with the choices. Their basic objections were voiced philosophically, if not ideologically: 'taxing the rich, was punishing success; we were discouraging investments which would lead to job creation; it isn't right to tax the wealthy, who have worked hard to achieve their prosperity'. Those are generalizations, but you get the picture. The rationale around the table: nearly 10 years of tax cuts for the wealthy and there haven't been any jobs produced. Long before the crash of 2008, job growth and wages had been stagnant with the tax cuts. Even with the proposed 15% military cuts, we have the largest best equipped military in the world (one objection was that we had to be prepared to go to war with China...really? Why would China want to go to war with the country whose debt it holds? And whose trade helps keep their economy afloat? Seriously?!)

In the end, I think they (the conservatives) would have been more strident, had they not been outnumbered. Which is why I wish the table would have been more diverse in its political representation. I'm sure there were some more creative conservative arguments available. As it was, we shut down the military budget discussion, by saying that we could still had more than enough money to go to war with Micronesia if necessary.

However there were other tables that had more rigorous conversations around these subjects than we did: "Frank Reister, at Table 3, felt that the choices subtly steered people toward protecting entitlement programs and that liberals were over-represented."

""We are overtaxing and overspending. We spend money stupidly," Reister said. "Obamacare is a huge spending bomb.""

"Far more participants – all of whom, regardless of age, race or political bent, shared a concern about the nation's fiscal health – lauded the program as an eye-opener and a way to pressure decision-makers in Washington."

""You can't do it without cutting the big expensive stuff – Social Security and Medicare – but you can't leave people out on the street," said recent Collin College graduate Alex Hirsch, an IT specialist who, at 19, was far younger than most participants. "We're at a crossroads.""

""Eventually, somebody's got to bite the bullet," said Nathan Miller, 17, a prep-school student from Coppell."

"With only 15 minutes left, a frantic air began to take hold. With eight minutes, the volunteer facilitator, Steven Fearing, prodded them again to focus."

""We're less than half the way to $1.2 trillion," said Fearing, who runs workplace discussions for a living."

""I got a real sense of how hard it is for our leaders to make these choices," Holloway said."

For me, however, I got a sense of how people were really concerned about the country's future. Whether or not they supported Obama. Whether or not they were Republican or Democrat. We all recognized the untenable nature of the way we are currently doing business.

I also got a glimpse at how our perspectives are colored. Everyone at our table was genuinely concerned. The conservatives were not really blindly ideological (although the rest of us genuinely disagreed with them). Their point of view was colored by age, life experience and personal ambition. The rest of us, middle age and older, thought more about the social impact of skyrocketing deficits.
The results of the exercise by 3500 participants will be forwarded to fiscal commission appointed by President Obama. The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, who, in turn will issue its own report late this year.

How seriously will they take our work? What does taking the input of citizens who have taken their time to come together and voice their perspective? I have to confess one Saturday won't transform anything. It's the consistent engagement of citizens that makes a real difference. It's voting and conversation. It's learning to understand your own convictions beyond rhetoric and communicating those convictions to those who make decisions.

Saturday won't change everything. But it's a good beginning. Where it goes from here isn't up to politicians in Washingtion - its up to us.

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