To find economic solutions, let's look to ourselves

Aug 26 2011 - 2:04pm

Images

FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2011 file photo, people wait in line during a job fair, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, on the campus of Atlanta Technical College in Atlanta. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week, pushed up by thousands of Verizon workers on strike. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Bob Andres, File)
A trader talks on the telephone while working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, Aug. 26, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Jin Lee)
FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama waves to people at the take out window at Nancy's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., with Eric Whitaker, center and Valerie Jarrett, partially obscured at right, during a family vacation. Whitaker and Jarrett are two in a circle of tight-lipped friends, who form a core with Martin Nesbitt, not shown, who’ve sustained Obama through good times and bad since his days in Chicago, from Hawaii to Washington to Martha’s Vineyard and back again. They golf with him, they vacation with him, their kids and his kids hang out. To them, he’s Barack, not Mr. President. He can be teased and tease back. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE - In this file photo taken Feb. 17, 2011, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Banking Committee. Some economists worry that low rates might be hurting the economy itself — defeating the purpose of the Federal Reserve's low-rate policies. When savers earn less, they spend less. And spending by individuals drives about 70 percent of the U.S. economy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/File)
In this Aug. 22, 2011 photo, a new home displaying a sale sign is shown in, Springfield, Ill. Fixed mortgage rates edged up this week from their lowest levels in decades. But few have been able to capitalize on them. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
FILE - In this Aug. 18, 2011 file photo, people wait in line during a job fair, sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, on the campus of Atlanta Technical College in Atlanta. The number of people seeking unemployment benefits rose last week, pushed up by thousands of Verizon workers on strike. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Bob Andres, File)
A trader talks on the telephone while working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Friday, Aug. 26, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/Jin Lee)
FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2011, file photo President Barack Obama waves to people at the take out window at Nancy's Restaurant in Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard, Mass., with Eric Whitaker, center and Valerie Jarrett, partially obscured at right, during a family vacation. Whitaker and Jarrett are two in a circle of tight-lipped friends, who form a core with Martin Nesbitt, not shown, who’ve sustained Obama through good times and bad since his days in Chicago, from Hawaii to Washington to Martha’s Vineyard and back again. They golf with him, they vacation with him, their kids and his kids hang out. To them, he’s Barack, not Mr. President. He can be teased and tease back. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
FILE - In this file photo taken Feb. 17, 2011, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Banking Committee. Some economists worry that low rates might be hurting the economy itself — defeating the purpose of the Federal Reserve's low-rate policies. When savers earn less, they spend less. And spending by individuals drives about 70 percent of the U.S. economy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/File)
In this Aug. 22, 2011 photo, a new home displaying a sale sign is shown in, Springfield, Ill. Fixed mortgage rates edged up this week from their lowest levels in decades. But few have been able to capitalize on them. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

I don't have a solution, but I do wish to propose a different way of approaching the problem.

The problem is that first, the economy is in tatters. Unemployment hovers near 9 percent. Standard & Poor's has downgraded the nation's credit rating. U.S. debt stands in excess of $14 trillion.

Second, we're suffering political paralysis. A recent study by the National Journal showed that Congress is more polarized today than at any time in the last three decades. And though there seems to be a consensus among economists that addressing the debt will require a combination of spending cuts and tax increases, that does not seem likely to happen in this Congress, in which 236 members of the House and 41 members of the Senate have signed a pledge ruling out tax increases.

Third, no one in Washington is inspiring confidence. According to Gallup, President Obama's approval rating stands at just 41 percent. And Congress' 13 percent rating is among the lowest since Gallup starting tracking the number.

Fourth, there is little reason to believe things will change in the 15 months left before the next presidential election. A congressional "super committee" has been tasked with reducing the federal deficit by $1.5 trillion by Nov. 23. But the Simpson-Bowles commission already spent a year on a more extensive analysis and came up short of the votes needed to force consideration by Congress. The commission's report nevertheless provided a framework that could have -- and should have -- been put to a congressional vote, but the left didn't like the proposed entitlement reforms, and the right objected to the proposed military cuts and tax increases. It's difficult to believe the next committee will do better.

And fifth, should a Republican capture the White House next year, we've already been given a preview of the intransigence that would follow. During last week's debate in Iowa, all of the Republican presidential candidates indicated they would reject a debt-reduction com- promise even if it consisted of 10 parts spending cuts to only one part tax increases. (Rick Perry was not yet in the race, but it's hard to imagine that he would disagree.)

In short, we are broke, poorly represented, lacking confidence in our leaders, and understandably pessimistic about government's ability to right the economic ship.

But why are we still looking to the culprits to solve these problems? We are a nation of more than 300 million people with a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. Tapping into that ingenuity does not require the government's involvement. It's time to look for solutions elsewhere -- and some are already trying to.

Take Gene Epstein, the Bucks County, Pa., philanthropist who initiated the Hire Just One campaign. He committed to donating $1,000 to charity for every small business that hires one new employee.

Or Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, who is urging business leaders to stop making political donations until lawmakers prove they can cooperate with one another to address the national debt and joblessness.

Warren Buffett initiated a conversation recently when he suggested the superrich should pay more than they do in taxes. Some commentators pointed out that there's nothing to stop Buffett from accessing the Treasury Department website and making a voluntary donation to be put toward reducing the national debt.

Maybe that option needs more publicity. Think about the potential commercial opportunity for businesses willing to make national debt-reduction payments as a means of spurring economic activity. Buy a new refrigerator, and GE will send $25 to the U.S. Treasury earmarked to pay off debt. Purchase a new car, and General Motors will send Uncle Sam $100. You get the picture.

Look what Bono has done with his ONE Campaign to fight extreme poverty and preventable disease in Africa. Or what Lance Armstrong's Livestrong campaign has done to empower those fighting cancer.

There must be something we can do to support the nation. And it's time to do it. If you have an idea, I'd love to hear it. Find me on Facebook or Twitter, and I will republish your best ideas and keep the conversation going.

Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.

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