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Donald Kettl
Academic Dean

Bold truth, political suicide

How can Americans handle the painful truth about growing budget deficits when their leaders have told them for decades that the problems can be solved without pain--or that the painful steps will be taken by someone else--or that the painful consequences will fall on someone else?

This is a very weird leadership problem. If you lock the people who really understand the deficit in a room, they'd come out in relatively short order with a clear picture of the problem, the options, and a game plan. Getting consensus on the operational details would be ugly, but the overwhelming consensus about the seriousness of the problem and the consequences for failing to solve it would push past the ideological splits. In fact, the consensus that there could be a consensus has been powerful for the last twenty years. The Concord Coalition's yeoman work on the deficit is ample proof that the problem is solvable.

It's hardly the case that the people are stupid. It doesn't take Jack Nicholson bellowing his famous "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men to get the point across. Senior citizens don't want to make the next generation the first one in American history whose government will be weaker and whose standard of living will be poorer. Young citizens quickly grasp that the long-term for them isn't good without a deficit fix.

So here's the puzzle. Our leaders understand, with crystal clarity, that ongoing deficits are bad, that they can't be sustained, and that the long-run consequences of an ostrich strategy could prove tragic. Our citizens don't spend much time thinking about the problem--it's not the first thing in people's minds over morning coffee--but I have yet to see a serious conversation with citizens about the deficit that didn't end up with an outraged "why don't we solve this?!!!"

But our leaders believe that, if they boldly told the truth, they'd be committing political suicide. Our citizens complain that their leaders don't have the courage to lead. So the leaders won't lead and the followers won't follow, even though everyone who looks at the problem agrees we need to act and it will be very bad if we don't. The problem is that everyone discounts the gruesome long-term far more than the short-term pain. The irony is that the short-term pain is less if we act soon enough, and that the longer we wait the more painful the necessary steps will be.

The movie model really isn't Jack Nicholson. It's Stan Laurel, who regularly bashed his partner Oliver Hardy by complaining, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." Leadership never works if the leaders blame the followers and the followers whine about the leaders.

What we need most now isn't just leadership. It's civility, so we can talk about the issues that matter, and citizenship, so we can collectively act on what we need to do. Civil citizenship might be much harder to come by these days than good leaders.

By Donald Kettl

 |  February 2, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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