Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Generally speaking, we hate each other. Specifically, we agree on pretty much everything.

Solving our biggest national problems is a very simple matter -- on paper. The major obstacle to progress in America is the annoying tendency of our political leaders to speak in useless generalities.

Republicans: “We will never vote to raise taxes.” Hooray!

Democrats: “We will never vote to cut social security.” Woohoo!

Why are lawmakers so afraid of having a civil conversation on the specifics?

Today, somebody earning $113 million a year doesn’t pay a penny more in social security taxes than somebody making $113 thousand a year. Most rational Republicans think that’s ridiculous. But as long as their “leaders” keep calling a fair fix a “tax increase,” inequity will prevail.

Conversely, there are now 400 percent more Americans -- age 65 or older -- than there were in 1940. And they are living an average of five years longer. Most rational Democrats think a modest increase in the eligibility age for social security is perfectly reasonable. But as long as their “leaders” continue to characterize common sense as a “benefit cut,” nothing will ever happen.

It’s not just social security. The same is true for almost any “difficult” issue you can imagine.

Most Republicans believe background checks should be required before buying a gun. Democrats agree. Yet there are no background checks.

Most Democrats accept the proposition that the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants should be long and tough. Republicans agree. Yet there is no immigration reform.

Most Republicans think it’s absurd that the government can’t shop around for the lowest price when it comes to prescription drugs for seniors. Democrats agree. Yet the drug lobby still trumps the taxpayers.

Both conservatives and liberals believe that our allies should be shouldering a larger share of the cost of their own national defense. Yet overseas military spending is still off the charts.

Ditto taxes. I can’t find anybody who actually believes that a hospital worker in America should pay a higher effective tax rate than a hedge fund manager. Can you?

If politicians actually got down to the specifics of almost any major public policy issue, party labels and political ideologies would magically give way to good old fashion common sense. Unfortunately, in Congress these days, common sense is not so common.

There are a million reasons for this -- chief of which is a rightfully ticked off public that hasn’t seen any progress in their paychecks for more than three decades. And the fact that JP Morgan Chase just agreed to pay a record $13 billion fine for ripping the heart and soul out of everybody’s most important asset -- their home -- doesn’t even begin to heal that wound.

Sure, we’re angry. And yes, there are many other factors: gerrymandering, Citizens United, talk radio, 24/7 cable news networks -- pick your poison. Legislators, lobbyists, and luminaries of the chatter class all profit handsomely from a polarizing and ultimately paralyzing focus on the general at the expense of the specific.

Just look at the recent government shutdown. Standard & Poor’s pegged the cost to the country during a fragile recovery at $24 billion which translates into a half point in lost GDP this quarter. Yet Ted Cruz’s campaign coffers are millions of dollars richer.

The New York Times’ editorial page assessed the damage to American economic growth since 2010 as: “over $300 billion in lost output and roughly 2 million fewer jobs than would otherwise have been the case.”

Never raise taxes? Never cut spending?

The time has come for us to insist that when it comes to governing, leaders on both sides should never say never again. As long as reckless political behavior is rewarded with re-election, politicians will always vote to protect their own jobs -- even if it costs you yours.