Wednesday, February 21 , 2018, 10:50 pm | Fair 42º


Mark Shields: The Eat-Your-Spinach-and-Brussels-Sprouts Plan

Deficit commission co-chairmen challenge all of us to sacrifice for our nation

Whatever else you want to say about the co-chairmen of the White House commission on deficit reduction, former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, you can’t accuse them of sugar-coating their proposed solutions. Simpson and Bowles have offered a politically painful fusion of both eliminating tax breaks and cutting defense and domestic spending.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

This is not an “eat your spinach” proposal. Simpson and Bowles have managed to come up with an eat-your-spinach-and-your-broccoli-and-finish-your-brussels-sprouts plan. No vague generalities here; they call for nearly $3.8 trillion in deficit reductions from 2012 to 2020, with $1 in new federal revenues for every $3 in federal spending cuts.

Already their proposals — including means-testing Social Security, raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for the affluent, as well as provoking investors by taxing their income from capital gains and dividends at the same rate as ordinary income — have put them in rhetorical crossfire between anti-tax conservatives and entitlement-defending liberals. If the test of political courage is the ability to simultaneously alienate both the right and the left, then Simpson and Bowles have passed with flying colors.

What they have offered is not some flawless blueprint for inevitable national prosperity. Some of the criticism of their individual proposals, even if self-serving, is valid. But give Simpson and Bowles great credit for challenging us Americans, all of us, to do what our national leaders have not asked us to do throughout nine years and two wars — “to sacrifice to make our nation stronger.”

Calls for shared sacrifice, you may have noticed, have not been issued this century from the Oval Office. In an earlier — and better era — war, for Americans, indeed did demand equality of sacrifice.

But now for the first time in 170 years, the United States continues to wage wars without a military draft and with unprecedented tax cuts. Simpson and Bowles write that “throughout our history, Americans have been willing to sacrifice,” but apparently nobody told them that was before the ascension of the Me Generation, when the one point of consensus between our two polarized parties is their apparent agreement not to increase the tax burden on Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump.

Do Simpson and Bowles have any idea whom they are talking to? Don’t they know we are the same people so bereft of patriotism that we have not even taxed ourselves to pay for these two wars and have selfishly shifted that burden to our children and grandchildren?

Ever since President Ronald Reagan’s impossible 1980 campaign promise to a) cut our taxes by one-third while b) doubling the defense budget and c) balancing the federal budget, we have been fed politically (and have fed ourselves) an unnourishing diet of ouchless, painless ersatz patriotism.

Somebody needs to tell Simpson and Bowles that our political tastes do not include unsweet, if nutritious, items such as spinach, brussels sprouts or broccoli. We prefer the political equivalent of the hot fudge sundae diet found in the tabloids you see while waiting in the supermarket checkout line. The front-page features an exclusive reporting that “Mussolini Is Alive and Running a Bed-and-Breakfast in Chillicothe, Ohio.” But the big science story tells us that we can lose 15 pounds a week just by forcing ourselves to eat four hot-fudge sundaes a day — something about the chemical reaction magically consuming thousands of calories, etc., etc.

That is what Simpson and Bowles are fighting. And they deserve our admiration and gratitude for trying.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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