EDMOND — Now that the election results are in, we know that we will have at least another two years with President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Boehner leading the nation. While the history of the past few years indicates that this trio will find it difficult to cooperate, here are five areas where common ground needs to be found:
While the U.S. economy has produced nearly five million private-sector jobs in the last 32 months, 12 million Americans remain unemployed. While the economy is clearly recovering, it is clearly not yet recovered. Furthermore, there remains a risk that the slowing economies in Europe and Asia will infect the U.S. Consequently, it is important for Democrats and Republicans to come together to agree on a set of proposals to boost the economy. Such a package should contain two key components: 1) continuation of the 2009 tax cuts for middle-class families, and 2) an expansion of federal aid to state/local governments to hire back the teachers and firefighters whose jobs were lost due to state/local government budget cuts in recent years.
While in the short-term it is important to keep taxes low, especially taxes on middle-class families, our current fiscal situation is not sustainable in the long-term. It is simply not feasible to continue running $1 trillion budget deficits indefinitely. Keep in mind that one reason the deficit is so large is that in recent years tax collections have been at 50-year lows. For example, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 federal tax collections amounted to only 15.1 percent, 15.1 percent and 15.4 percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (a measure of the size of the economy). In the previous 30 years the average was 18.2 percent — a difference that amounts to $400 billion in tax collections annually. In short, to balance the budget again eventually we must ask those who can to pay more.
If we don’t ask the wealthiest to pay more we face significant spending cuts elsewhere. While some portray the necessary spending cuts as painless, the truth is that balancing the budget on spending cuts alone will require deep cuts, even elimination, of some popular programs. For example, even if the federal government eliminated all discretionary non-defense spending (no federal money for education, highways, prisons, or science), there still would be a $400 billion budget deficit. In fact, as a percentage of the economy, federal discretionary spending has stayed roughly constant the past 30 years. What hasn’t remained constant is the growth in mandatory spending programs like Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. Most troublesome is that the growth in these programs is expected to accelerate in the coming decades. In short, we cannot afford the benefits that we’ve promised to tomorrow’s retirees. Any solution must require that we protect the benefits for current retirees, and those close to retirement. However, fairness also requires that we let workers from my generation and younger, know how much our benefits will be cut.
In school our children recite the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty (… give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free), but in reality our immigration policies tend to shun these very groups. This must change. When poor workers want to come here and work hard we should welcome them. When highly skilled workers want to come share their knowledge, we should embrace them. When young, undocumented students who’ve lived here their entire lives want to share in the American Dream, we should support them. In short, it’s time for us to fully embrace our heritage as a nation of immigrants.
Despite whatever studies that the naysayers trumpet, the overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that the planet’s climate is changing, and that human activity is a contributing factor. While we do not yet know all the effects that will result from continued inaction, we know that they will be virtually impossible to reverse. In other words, now is the time to act to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are contributing to climate change. While some worry that climate change policies like a carbon tax will harm the Oklahoma economy, the impact is likely to be the opposite. Keep in mind that natural gas produces 30 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the gasoline we typically use to power our cars and 50 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the coal we use to power our homes. With a policy similar to a carbon tax, not only would we significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we also would provide a greater incentive for the marketplace to consume more natural gas and benefit Oklahoma’s natural gas producers.
These are weighty issues, and the solutions are not easy. But now is the time for our leaders to put aside petty partisanship and work together to solve these most pressing problems. It’s time, in other words, for our leaders to lead.
MICKEY HEPNER is the dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Oklahoma. Hepner serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for The Oklahoma Academy.