11/27/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

Fiscal Cliff: Two American Values Are Tested

On an early September morning in 1776, Captain Nathan Hale was hung in an apple orchard. The 21 year old officer's last reported words were:

I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

People tend to see our founders as gentlemen, to which cadre Captain Hale most certainly belonged. What we often overlook is their depth of belief in the simple principal that people should be able to determine their destiny. Young Captain Hale is far from the first hero in history to sacrifice himself for his community or nation. U.S. history is filled right down to the current hour with such military men and women. We forget that civilians often do the same.

... And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

Well-off, privileged leaders of society uttered those words against the very government that nurtured them. Much was at risk, including their lives. Rewards seemed at best elusive. Many became bankrupts but they shook the globe. Why, clearly not for personal gain or prestige, rather for fairness and the greater good. John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, demonstrates these values continue to be no stranger in U.S. politics.

Without belittling the courage with which men have died, we should not forget those acts of courage with which men have lived.

We need leaders like those now. As this nation faces a fiscal cliff of our own making, all American citizens must demand a return to the same high values. Fairness, which is the very founding value this nation is built upon, requires a restoration of equality in America. 'Separate but Equal' failed as a test of American values during the racial segregation period and has no place in our society. Fairness requires that citizens possess equal opportunities to succeed in life. When wealth and power are concentrated in the hands of the few, society denies equal opportunity for all. Most Americans rightly see the Buffett rule as intrinsically fair. It is past time to restore tax rates for the very wealthy. We are a nation of doing what works. Concentrating wealth in a tiny portion of U.S. citizens does not work.

American ingenuity was once a subject of global envy. As a nation, the U.S. was seen as a country of builders and problem solvers, not as a nation of the military and business executives. Right into the 1970s, the world saw the United States as a problem solver. Not always right the first time, the nation would keep trying until we succeeded. Winston Churchill famously summed it up:

The Americans will always do the right thing... after they have exhausted all the alternatives.

For over the past 30 years, Americans tried the wrong thing. Somehow we came to believe that government was the problem rather than a solution. As a result, the nation consciously demonized government efforts and effectively abandoned this key tool. Infrastructure was allowed to decay as tax rates were slashed in a not vain hope that a private sector would occupy the space. It did but the results are not pretty.

Now, many challenges facing America are seen as too expensive and/or too difficult to solve. Rather than repair the electric grid, citizens accept days without power and cling to individual generators -- as long as fuel supplies last. Technology, such as highspeed internet or rail, is becoming standard among many industrialized nations but is seen as too expensive in the US. Once the envy of the world, U.S. quality primary and secondary education is now often seen as the realm of wealthy elites rather than the right of every individual.

All is far from lost but we approach a junction. The fiscal cliff offers a transition point. Will America confront the challenges facing her and the need for change? How we spend is every bit as important as how we cut. Conservative economic failure is now obvious both at home and even more so in Europe. Let's return to our traditional values of fairness and ingenuity. Those traits are based upon both our past and our greatest achievements. It is past time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.