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Robert Guttman Headshot

Our Political Leaders Are Living In A State Of Denial

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Have you actually heard any of the presidential candidates running in 2008 mention how we need to make sacrifices for the good of the country?

Have you heard any of the '08 candidates talk about our unsustainable budget and trade deficits that we will be leaving our children and grandchildren with massive debt?

Have you heard any of our future leaders discussing serious ways to fund Medicare and Social Security that will make these truly sustainable for future generations?

Has anyone mentioned a "war tax" to pay for our huge expenditures for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Has anybody mentioned that America's debt level to foreigners is bad for the economy?

Do any of the presidential candidates actually have an energy plan that causes Americans some pain and discomfort in their pocketbook?

On Tuesday, February 6, 2007 as part of our FT/CPFR breakfast discussion series which will be featuring all of the 2008 presidential candidates and other observers of the political and economic scene, we had the Senior Chairman of the Blackstone Group Peter Peterson as our speaker.

Unlike political candidates running for office Peterson was candid and blunt to a fault and he made sense. Saying "political leaders are living in a state of denial" by not asking "Americans to give up anything to solve our deficit problems" the former Secretary of Commerce and former New York Federal Reserve Chairman blasted America's feel good politicians who ask nothing of our citizens.

Saying politics is always looking for short term band aids rather than long term solutions to our huge economic problems the author of Running On Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It proposed actual solutions to what ails America today.

One doesn't have to agree with Peterson politically to understand that there is much truth in what he says. While he talks about our budget and trade deficits and our other economic ills the main deficit he discusses is our "political and cultural leadership deficit".

The Chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations says "our political leaders are living in a state of denial and are not asking the American people to give up anything" to solve our problems. There "needs to be an honest president who calls for shared sacrifice from all Americans". We need to have honest leaders who tell us that "we need to pay for our challenges".

Looking back at President Lyndon Johnson who incorrectly said America could have both "guns and butter" in fighting the Vietnam War, Peterson says today we have not only "guns and butter but tax cuts" so obviously the deficit will continue to grow.

What we need are leaders who tell the truth and work out a plan that calls for "shared sacrifice" from Americans in all walks of life to get us out of our deficit hole.

Peterson says that today "the politician hands a painless promise to the crowd, and they hand him a painless vote" but "it wasn't always so. In another era, President Harry Truman once defined leadership as 'getting people to do what they don't want to do and getting them to like it'".

The former CEO of Lehman Brothers called on the audience to demand something from our leaders today using the example of Truman and other post World War II leaders in pushing through the successful Marshall Plan which was unpopular when it was first proposed but became one of our most successful foreign policy programs.

Obviously, it is easier for a wealthy individual like Peter Peterson to talk of financial sacrifices than the average citizen. Yet, he makes sense in that we all need to be in this together.

We are fighting two wars today in Iraq and Afghanistan that are incredibly expensive as can be seen by the president's new budget requests to fund these unpopular conflicts.

Yet, the public at large is not sharing in the sacrifices of these wars. We are not even asked to pay more taxes for the wars. The main people suffering are the soldiers and their families. This is so unfair in a democracy.

Look at our flawed energy policy. As Peterson states, "All we are getting are painless energy plans from our leaders". Let's have the courage to actually tax our gasoline like they do in Europe and other parts of the world. Let's realize that oil is not sitting in the Middle East and other parts of the world just so Americans can have cheap energy. Those days are over and we need political leaders asking something of us to solve our energy problems.

We have politicians - just like corporate CEO's - who seem to be only looking at the short term. For politicians short term means getting re-elected and for CEO's it means profits and bonuses.

What Peter Peterson is correctly saying is that we have deficits and they need to be fixed. What he is saying is that we need leaders that actually ask something from our citizens rather than promising everyone a Rose Garden in order to get their "painless" vote.

We need political - and corporate - leaders who can look at the long term and who can explain in a logical way to the American people that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Our leaders might be surprised that the American public is smarter than they think and that we are willing to make some sacrifices for a better and more economically sound future.

Maybe Peter Peterson should add another title to his lengthy resume - presidential candidate. We need candidates who don't really need the job and who are willing to speak the truth and know they probably will lose by speaking the truth. It certainly would help the political debate to start talking about our massive deficits including the biggest deficit of them all - our political deficit.