Fiscal Leadership Without Individual Example

We are witnessing another “winner takes all” race between Congress and the Administration. Deploying the elections-winning mantra of smaller government and deficit reduction,  the media grab is on to see who can frame a political formula to cut spending by eliminating or downsizing existing federal programs that positions best for the 2012 presidential contest.

The backdrop for this debate is a wounded and weary nation with stubborn 9 percent unemployment across the board and a middle class still reeling from deepening home foreclosures. This is the same middle class that lost over one-trillion dollars in household savings during the financial sector’s implosion that started the 2008 Great Recession.

While Washington pundits and politicians rack up legislative and media points to the dismay of a skeptical, angry and burned out public; the U.S. is well on its way to dismantling its middle class.  The richest 20 percent have managed to accumulate 93 percent of the country’s collective wealth.  Census data shows that the richest one percent of all Americans now account for 43 percent of national net worth if housing is not included and this number further disintegrates if housing is included, as most middle class Americans tied their personal wealth to their homes.

Lost in the debate over who qualifies for middle class tax treatment and which federal programs should disappear is the fact that for the first time since the Great Depression generation, the American dream for the second class 80 percent is much more about surviving next week’s bills and dramatically less about equal opportunities to achieve any measure of economic security or progress.  Policies deliberately crafted and implemented by elites of all kinds from both parties have fulfilled their goals to the point where the top one percent of tax-paying Americans now enjoy tax rates a third lower than the same top percentile in 1970.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that 43.6 million Americans now survive on food stamps. Taking an average of two Americans per family household unit that means roughly one out of every three families in America is getting its nourishment this way.  Food stamp dependency is connected to income inequality and unemployment rates in ways few dare to dispute.  To paraphrase President Roosevelt’s “Economic Bill of Rights” articulated during his second inaugural address, today we’re at least at the level of “one-third of our people ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure”.  Instead of  evangelical prosperity, the American dream has become one without generosity and equal treatment under the law redefining tens of millions of our citizens as “children of a lesser god.”

How can the American belief in national exceptionalism exist without a thriving and growing middle class composed of empowered workers as well as liberated small business owners?  To avoid the past from becoming prologue, those who would lead us down the path of one more elite, greed-infested bridge too far lay the groundwork for national class warfare to everyone’s civic peril.  Our historical transition from political theater tea partying in Boston harbor to Sons of Liberty armed resurrection, from Articles of Confederation to a binding Constitution reforged and strengthened by a devastating Civil War, should give pause.

In this environment, scoring ideological and short-term points once more without feeling on the backs of people without means deepens income inequality, and hardens and widens the divide between those who have too much and those who are barely hanging on or dropping out.   The American experience “by and for the people” now reads as a cynical approach of “I’ve got mine now you figure out how to get yours.”  This sentiment, while eternally morally deplorable, stands cynically apart at this moment as preeminently hypocritical coming from sectors and classes recently and massively bailed out by the public treasury.

What’s needed is not another failed model, not another tilted playing field favoring the economically prosperous over the dying and abandoned middle class, but instead an approach that makes sense instinctively and which resonates with our founding core values of shared sacrifice and leadership by example.  In this dynamic, symbols play an important role in synthesizing the complex into a resurgent battle cry for social justice and shared prosperity buttressed by a renewed willingness to believe.

Our nation’s leaders, starting with all members of Congress, the President, and his Cabinet, should take a simple budget cutting pledge:  “I will give up my own pay first before I ask a single, middle class American citizen to give up or reduce his or her pay.  I will give up my own health care until all the Americans I serve have healthcare treatment equal to mine.”

It’s time our national leaders motivated all citizen-troops to charge up the fiscal solvency hill instead of sending eighty percent of us off to battle while twenty percent watch comfortably from hill-top gated communities to the rear.  Real leaders furlough themselves first before they furlough anyone else. Real leaders sacrifice themselves before they ask for sacrifice from others.

“Do as I say but not as I do” is un-American.  True American leadership means serving those we lead and that means first setting a personal example as opposed to jury-rigging the system to be self-served over and over again. In today’s cacophony of mixed messages and failed, imploding models and so-called experts, the right way to right our financial posture and stiffen our budgetary spine with bipartisan buy-in by those who always bear the greatest burden is to close the backrooms in favor of the public square, eliminate the access of those who have converted this country into a personal accessory, cough it back up through claw-backs for those who stole from us in the first place, and place our bets on leaders who “walk the talk”, who lead by personal example in ways we are inspired and honored to follow.

Michael Peck is a volunteer board member of the Apollo Alliance, advisor to the Blue-Green Alliance, recipient of the 1981 Commander-In Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe Leadership Award, and a small business owner.”