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The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed that without government, the life of man becomes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Lately it’s seemed just the opposite—with government our economic lives are at risk. It’s as if we have a heart attack every three months, gradually ruining our economic health, causing self-imposed economic pain and diminishing our standing in the world.
There’s got to be a better way.
A House Divided
The Economist magazine recently published a cover story showing President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner trying to throw each other off a cliff. But it wasn’t just any cliff. They were standing on top of Mt. Rushmore while a “stone-faced” George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled their eyes. The last sentence in the cover story concluded, “It is time for less cliff-hanging, and more common sense.”
This is the America the world sees—a disjointed, constantly fighting and spoiled leader of the free world. We are anything but a leader right now as countries around the world wonder what on earth we are doing. In Tom Friedman speak, we are children of permanently divorcing parents, and our parents, otherwise known as our elected officials, spend all their time thinking about themselves.
The last time I felt this disappointed in my government our country was at war—the Vietnam War. My brother did a tour of duty, but it never felt right. Our country didn’t seem to appreciate his sacrifice. We were at war with ourselves.
Today we are at war with ourselves again—the right and the left—and those of us in the common sense middle can only shake our heads, just like the rest of the world.
Back From the Brink
I have a favorite Adlai Stevenson quote that says, “Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.” Our country needs more of this kind of patriotism right now. And it begins with something I like to call the “productive middle.”
The productive middle recognizes that people on both sides of the aisle offer something of value. The productive middle takes the best ideas from the left and the right and molds them into a national compromise. The productive middle requires a person to be humble enough and respectful enough to value someone else’s point of view. By doing so, people who normally disagree take a step closer to one another. After enough steps from both extremes, the golden zone of compromise is reached and our country makes progress. That’s the American way.
To every Democrat reading this column, I ask you to see the positive attributes of Republican ideals. Markets really are the best way to organize economic activity. The U.S. government has a major spending problem. Personal responsibility is good for the individual and society. It’s justifiable to have a healthy skepticism in what government can and cannot accomplish.
And to my fellow Republicans, I ask you to see the positive attributes of Democratic ideals. A strong safety net is important to the human condition. Working people make a huge contribution to this country and deserve support. Government can sometimes improve market outcomes. And the environment really is vital to our health and sense of wellbeing.
If we start to see the value in contrasting points of views, several logical steps start to seem attractive and attainable.
Here’s a start. Let’s reform entitlements to account for longer life spans and rising healthcare costs. Let’s raise the retirement age and means test Social Security. The statutory debt ceiling has been used one too many times for political brinkmanship. Let’s either get rid of it or make it a requirement when tax and appropriation bills are passed. Let’s lower the top marginal corporate tax rate to improve U.S. competitiveness and the economy’s long-term growth. And let’s replace the sequester with smart cuts rather than stupid ones. Farm subsidies, congressional benefits and a soft federal hiring freeze should be at the top of the list.
The U.S. economy remains sluggish. Full employment remains elusive. The world is shifting away from us as we fall from the economic leaderboard. The right and the left can keep throwing bombs at each other or they can support real patriotism. It’s time for the productive middle to have its day.
Natalie Gochnour is an associate dean in the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah and chief economist for the Salt Lake Chamber.