Should Congress let some or all of the tax rates rise? How much national debt is too much? How long can we allow deficits to persist? These questions, and many more, are at the heart of public debate in the U.S.
However, finding the answers to these questions presents the public with a paradox: growing exhaustion with the debates as the window of opportunity closes. In other words, every day that passes makes us less willing to reach accommodations on the solutions that grow in importance with that passage of time. How can we explain the nagging disagreement between liberals and conservatives? Simple. We skipped the most important question: what type of country do we want?
Our ideal country doesn't have to be – and indeed should not be – fixed or set in stone. There are very important details that should organically evolve from a framework that we all decide upon. Social norms are one group of many particular details that can not be decided upon instantaneously, because by definition they are the result of long practiced, widely accepted, and deeply held beliefs within society. With that in mind, we can come to some level of agreement upon the framework of a functioning, healthy, stable, and creditworthy republic which we will be proud to call the United States of America.
It is no wonder then why the headlines of major newspapers and public forums are so confounding to ordinary Americans. I know why fathers and sons, best friends for a lifetime, and ordinary strangers all degenerate into vitriolic and combative attacks upon one another when trying to discuss popular political issues: no one's answer is technically wrong. Mr. Smith's idea of the U.S. is radically at odds with his son's idea. That fact shouldn't be insightful, but what is shocking is our reluctance to discuss those different ideas. As a nation – or as a "state" ... for you international relations majors – we have to bring public debate back down to it's most simplistic form. Have you ever seen two individuals who don't speak the same language try to communicate with one another? It's truly one of life's more awkward and frustrating interactions to witness as a voyeur. The two interlocutors speak at one another, then yell, and search anxiously for an interpreter. Most of the time an interpreter is not readily at hand, but when these two pitiable heroes realize that they have an epiphany. They start using crude sign language that they both can understand and moreover they limit discussion to topics that are easily communicable with this sign language: food, travel, lodging. Simple.
In the United States we have yet to find that interpreter, but have also not had the revelation that some shared language is the key to breaking our linguistic divide. We are speaking and yelling at one another. Eventually we will throw our hands up and walk away from one another. Enough with the metaphors. It's probably too late to scrap most of the fiscal and social debates we find ourselves in today because we're in too deep. In other words, we've crossed a threshold that has no exit and we must see ourselves through. Winston Churchill offered some advice: "If you're going through hell, keep going."
What about the debates we have embarked upon recently, or have yet to begin? This is the crucial moment to have honest discussions with one another about what we want for our country in the first place. Do we want a welfare system? If we do, who should qualify and, more importantly, what are reasonable qualifications? What do we do with people who consistently fail to meet those qualifications? There is literally no agreement on the answers to these questions between two random strangers, let alone fathers and sons or liberals and conservatives. Faced with disagreement on the most simple foundations for this single topic, why are you surprised by the fact that we can't figure out how to fund a welfare system? Any fiscal solutions will be met with opposition because those solutions provide answers to more fundamental questions we haven't even asked, let alone answered! It's folly.
How much national debt is too much? How do we bring down deficits without causing a recession? Well, what are we accruing debt for? Ask 10 people on the streets of your town what the top three contributions to our deficits and national debt are and you will find that maybe two of those people can provide the right answers. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are the fastest growing and most expensive government expenditures and many years ago we already decided, as a society, that these were programs worthy of our attention. But bigots complain over the airwaves that food stamps and welfare writ large are programs being financed by debt that China is buying. This is foolish. And what are some programs you might support as a republican (small 'r' not big 'R'), the cost of which you think is much higher than we spend? Maybe NASA's budget? Spoiler: it's a fraction of a penny on every dollar we spend. And NASA is leading us to a future safe from the pollution we've done to Earth.
So where do we go from here? Stop everything.
As a nation we need to have a genuinely honest discussion with one another about the nation we want to live in. I'll go first. I want all citizens to have a proud work ethic. If people are lazy and reap the benefits that others have worked hard for, then their should be punishments. I think workers should be valued by their employers more, but workers should also understand that running a company costs money. If a business owner can not put more money into worker's compensation without bankrupting his enterprise, then stop asking for compensation. I want to live in a country where PBS or some public news agency is funded by every citizen. I want that news agency to deliver news and information that is truly unbiased. I want a welfare system that is tolerant of people who work hard but face insurmountable obstacles like crime, broken families, and poor work environments. But I want those on welfare to be unquestionably deserving of the benefits they receive, and I want the system to be designed so that welfare recipients can't wait to get out of that system. I want a military that protects our nation, not one that fights two wars overseas at a time. I want our diplomatic core to be ten times the size of today's State Department, and I want to see a diplomatic strategy that appreciates global differences instead of insisting upon the adoption of our culture. I want public debate to be fun. I want Pictionary, Sharades, Monopoly, and other insufferable social games to be replaced with oration contests like the classical Greeks used to practice. More than anything, I want to live in a country where everyone's opinion is heard and respected and where everyone demands that their opinion is heard in a similar fashion.
Disagreement is, for all intents and purposes, healthy for a republic. We have forgotten to disagree respectfully with one another. It really shouldn't be that hard to change that unfortunate fact.