Reviving the American Dream

By Earl Mathers, Gaston County Manager

The following is strictly my personal opinion. Working in Washington, DC more than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to engage David Walker, former Comptroller General of the United States, as a speaker for a conference I was hosting.  Mr. Walker had the bully pulpit In DC because he held a position in which he had ready access to economic and fiscal information at the highest levels, a first rate team of professionals and could not be fired by anyone for speaking out for the duration of his fifteen-year term.  At one point I asked Mr. Walker if people on the Hill were listening to him and his response was something like “very rarely”.

During that time and for some years before, he and others were devoted to educating Congress on the perils of maintaining our questionable financial management practices as a nation.  This miscarriage of fiduciary responsibility is well known to most observers of the American political process and generally involves the avoidance of fiscal discipline.  Specifically, Congress and the President have ignored looming problems with Social Security, Medicare and the need for both entitlement reform and fiscal restraint to deal with our national debt which exceeds $17 trillion.  In addition, we have failed to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote economic vitality and American competitiveness. All of these problems were set forth more recently by the Boyles-Simpson Commission which was authorized by President Obama.  Like Mr. Walker’s earlier recommendations, the work by Boyles Simpson was disregarded despite the fact that the remedies for our fiscal problems have been known for many years.

This recalcitrance is troubling locally for a number of reasons. In coming decades, servicing the national debt and covering the costs of Social Security and Medicare will consume ever larger portions of the federal budget.  Local governments deliver a broad array of services that are essential for our citizens.  Everyone in local government has seen a recent decline in both intergovernmental transfers and grants.  These forms of revenue support many types of locally delivered services and may be irreplaceable considering the limitations of local revenue generation capacity.  Secondly, we are informed that succeeding generations of Americans will not be able to sustain the same levels of economic prosperity their parents have enjoyed.  Finally, our weakened financial condition makes us more vulnerable to all sorts of calamities and inhibits our nation’s ability to make the kinds of strategic investments that will promote future economic vibrancy and quality of life.  In short, abdication of fiduciary responsibility at the federal level will have a trickle-down effect on local government and citizens.

Although the remedies to these problems are far from painless, the solutions are well known.  The real obstacles seem to be the lack of political will to address these challenges and an operating environment in Washington which is scandalously polarized.  Ultimately, the repercussions of this inaction on the part of Congress and the President will be borne by American taxpayers.  Various groups, including the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, have pointed out that correcting our fiscal imbalance can be accomplished in a gradual manner that supports economic growth and protects the most vulnerable in society. Delaying action, however, simply exacerbates the problem and extends the pain further into the future.  Instead of politics as usual and lame attempts to deflect blame, America desperately needs strong bipartisan leadership at the national level that is willing to take decisive action.  Climbing out of the hole we have dug for ourselves may require a generation of belt tightening.  The alternatives of continued brinksmanship, a gradual decline in American influence and the inability to address strategic priorities is even less appealing.  It is time for Congress and the President to revive the American Dream.

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