08/10/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2012

The Real Campaign Issue: Who Will Suffer the Pain

As the presidential campaign roles into high gear, both candidates continue to avoid the real question that they should be placing before the American people in this election. Under their respective economic programs: who will suffer the pain?

First, the candidates should honestly acknowledge that there is pain in the future. So far, neither candidate has forthrightly addressed the most important issue facing America today. The country cannot continue to incur the enormous deficits that it has and will continue to have unless there are drastic changes made in the system. Those deficits keep adding to the national debt, which everybody, Democrat and Republican alike, agree cannot keep growing without serious consequences to our ability to support it through continuous borrowing. In order to reduce the deficits and the debt, there will have to be painful changes made either in reducing the expenditures or in increasing the revenues.

Second, the candidates should be clearly presenting their economic programs explaining how they intend to reduce the budget deficits and the national debt. That will allow the electorate to understand how each candidate intends to allocate the pain involved in carrying out their programs. By this time, even the least economically sophisticated among us understands that deficits can only be cut either by reducing expenditures or raising revenues. By far the largest unfunded expenditures are on Medicare and Medicaid, national defense, and interest on the national debt. Social Security is presently fully funded by FICA payments into the Social Security Trust Fund, although at some point in time, that too will face a shortfall that must be addressed. Interest on the national debt not only cannot be reduced, but will continue to grow as the debt grows. So, any effort to significantly reduce expenditures must come from cutting Medicare and/or Medicaid and/or cutting the military budget. To be sure, there are many other items in the Federal budget and undoubtedly some of them will have to suffer cuts, as well. But those cuts cannot save enough money to make a serious impact on the debt.

The other side of the equation is revenues. Revenues can be increased by raising the rates at which income is taxed, eliminating deductions that reduce taxable income or creating a new source of revenue such as a national sales tax. I don't think the American people are gullible enough to rely on a story that revenues will be raised by increasing jobs, since it is not at all clear from either candidate that they have a realistic plan for increasing jobs. If President Obama had a plan to increase jobs that could be enacted, he would have presented it already. If Governor Romney had a plan that the public believed, he would be running far ahead of Obama. Simply making the claim that eliminating some regulations or reducing taxes on the rich will create jobs is not at all credible.

So, there it is; as simple as that. The candidates have to tell us what cuts they will make in the budget and what changes they will make in the tax code. Obviously, they have been avoiding telling us that because that will tell us who they want to bear the pain and how much. Is it the elderly, the poor, the military system? Or is it taxpayers in certain brackets who will be asked to pay more taxes or taxpayers enjoying certain deductions, such as the deduction of interest paid on a home mortgage?

It is time that we voters stopped the candidates from dancing around the topic. As voters, we, have a responsibility that comes with our democratic system to demand that the candidates stop the obfuscation and tell us the truth, so that we can make an informed decision. Members of the media also have a major responsibility. The public looks to them to represent us; to ask the right questions and push for open, honest answers. Each of the candidates tells us how great our nation is, how exceptional are our citizens, how enviable our democracy. All of that only works if they level with us.

Mr. Lifton, a business man and political activist is writing a book entitled "Life's Lessons and Stories from a Member of the 'Greatest Generation:' A Personal History of Our Time."