The federal budget as metaphor
Question: The conventional political wisdom is that the American public will reject politicians who propose or embrace a plan to bring the federal budget into balance through tax hikes and/or deep spending cuts. Is this a leadership challenge without a good solution? Can there be leadership without follow-ship?
The solution and the leadership challenge will be to convince Americans to take more responsibility for the current and future state of the economy and to accept a time of sacrifice. Accomplishing this will require much more than strategic communication and eloquent speech--it will take the courage to tell the truth after decades of denial and rationalization.
If obtaining a balanced budget were a logical, technical solution, it would have already been achieved. Our values and beliefs are embedded in the numbers, and changing the balance sheet is about changing ourselves. Balancing the budget is not just a realistic reallocation of resources; it is a metaphor for our belief about the American character. We perceive ourselves to be strong, responsible, prudent stewards; committed to trusteeship of our resources for future generations. It is hard to face the fact that we have failed to live up to this ideal.
Balancing the budget means taking a hard look at another aspect of our national identity that is deeply ingrained in our perceptions and behaviors--that of individualism. Alexis de Tocqueville raised the danger this trait holds when he expressed a concern that it might lead to a citizenry becoming locked away "in the solitude of our own hearts." His fear has become legitimized in the national debate about the budget.
Americans are described as "worried" about the growing national debt, yet the remedies seem to be those that will cost them the least. A balanced budget will require sacrifice; dreams will be deferred. It is easier to advocate for a balanced budget than it is to accept the responsibility and the consequences that come with having it. We have an epidemic of finger pointing and blaming "the other." The villain is always everyone else; the solution is always the responsibility of some else. How many of those repeating the mantra of a balanced budget are on the brink of economic disaster themselves?
Most Americans have little or no savings, and are in far more debt than their incomes can support. Those who borrowed far beyond their means are now fearful and angry about what the future holds for them. They are enraged about the government's limited capacity to protect them from the consequences of their own behavior. Government is an asset when it suits their individual needs, but a hindrance when it helps "the other." What citizens in a democracy should reasonably expect from their leaders in government is well thought-out policies that foster the economic health and well being of all Americans. For government to do its job well requires both courageous leadership and followership willing to sacrifice.
Nearly everyone is feeling the pain of a depressed economy, but it is cowardly to place all of the blame on the federal government for the situation in which we find ourselves. It is cowardly to say that government is the problem when multiple sectors and parties have contributed to this precarious financial state.
The widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots is an invitation to social instability and increased economic insecurity. The byproducts of unrestrained capitalism--economic inequity and injustice--are being vividly exposed. Exploitation of the more vulnerable for individual greed, with no regard for the impact on the health and well being of others in our communities, is ultimately self destructive.
The leadership challenge is to get all of us--the public and the politicians--to understand and accept reality that the budget isn't the only form of imbalance. What can leaders and followers do? We can become those we have idealized ourselves to be. Everyone must own this problem and the solution. We need to do what we demand of our government: live within our means. We can decide what is absolutely essential to provide to all citizens. We can stop acting as if the government is a foreign occupant. We are the government. We can make sure that approaches to balancing the budget are not a retreat into "the solitude of our own hearts." We can temper individualism with a real commitment to the common good. We must share the sacrifice and also accept that "to whom much is given, much is required," if the country is to regain financial solvency and strength. We can accept that none of this will be easy. We can remind ourselves of the words that John Winthrop spoke to those with a vision of a new world nearly four centuries ago: "We must delight in each other, make others conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, always having before our eyes our community as members of the same body."
Katherine Tyler Scott
December 1, 2010; 9:52 AM ET
Category: Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Followership , Government leadership , Managing Crises , Political leadership , Presidential leadership , Self-Sacrifice Save & Share:
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