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Budget Hawks Flying Backwards

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Pressure is building in Washington for a high-profile commission to impose fiscal austerity on the Federal government for the coming decade. Supporters argue that Congress lacks the will to rein in projected budget deficits that will burden future generations. Therefore, we need a group of wise leaders to make the hard decisions on taxes and spending and present them to Congress on a "fast track," up or down vote.

One third of the Senate has endorsed a version proposed by Kent Conrad, chair of the Senate Budget Committee. House speaker Nancy Pelosi now supports the general idea. It is being promoted as part of a billion-dollar advertising crusade against deficit spending led by leveraged buyout king Pete Peterson.

Concern about the country's long term financial future is welcome. But this Washington-Wall Street alliance has the planning process backwards. As any competent corporate CEO knows, budgets are not goals but rather instruments for achieving goals. Before the government decides how to pay for the future, it first needs to determine what kind of future the country needs.

Defining the future in accounting terms ignores our deeper crisis. The debt-ridden, increasingly uncompetitive American economy can no longer support all of the nation's three current national goals: hegemony abroad, crony capitalism at home and rising living standards for the majority of its citizens. One out of three? Almost certainly. Two out of three? Perhaps. But three out of three? No.

"Everything will be on the table, spending and revenues." says Senator Conrad. Well, not quite everything. Absent a shift in America's geopolitical goals, military spending will be off the table, as it usually is.

Similarly sacrosanct will be our bloated financial sector - a major drag on the economic transformation the country needs in order to remain fiscally solvent. Few would quarrel with President Obama that we must move from an era of borrow, spend and import to one in which we save, invest and export. Among other things, this requires shifting capital away from financial speculation to long term investment in production. Thus, a tax aimed at discouraging short-term securities sales would both raise revenue and support healthier growth. But unless we establish the broader economic goal, there is zero chance of Congress overcoming Wall Street lobbyists who have already demonstrated their formidable power by having their clients declared "too big to fail."

With the generals, bankers and brokers dominant inside the beltway and tea-party anti-taxers sucking up the populist oxygen outside, a focus on the future through the narrow lens of budget balancing is bound to favor cutting spending over raising revenues.

Thus, we can thus expect another assault on social security benefits, not those of politically formidable present beneficiaries, but of future generations for whose sake the cuts will supposedly be made. There will also be a squeeze on the most vulnerable part of the civilian "discretionary" budget - investments in education, technology, modern infrastructure, and sustainable energy those same generations will need in order to compete in the brutal global marketplace.

So, before we entrust "hard decisions" about our future to a commission of budget hawks with sharp claws but weak vision, we should first establish a commission to help the country do some hard thinking about its priorities.

This idea is neither new nor radical. Toward the end of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower established a Commission on National Goals to help define choices for the next decade. John Kennedy showed how modern goal-setting could work in his pledge to reach the moon. Richard Nixon in 1970 proposed setting goals for national growth to guide future economic policy. Later that decade Jimmy Carter began an effort to educate Americans on the need to create a sustainable energy future.

Nor was thinking about the future only for Washington elites. Many state and local governments organized citizen forums around the celebration of the nation's bicentennial in 1976 to develop plans for what their community might look like in 25 years.

But with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, our democracy's evolution toward thinking together about the future stopped dead. Among Reagan's first acts was ripping out the solar panels installed at the White House. If the government just stopped worrying, he chuckled, the market would take care of the future just fine. Today, as we dig out from the collapse of that illusion, a sober national dialogue on where we go from here is needed more than ever.

No rigid formalized system of planning for the future will ever work in our pluralistic democracy. But establishing a commission to conduct open public discussion on our future, involving national, state and local leaders and political forums at all levels of government, could make Americans aware of hard trade-offs we now face, and force our leaders to articulate the vision of the future that drives their budget decisions. Otherwise, to paraphrase an old saying, if you don't know where you want to go, any budget will get you there.