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Rational Talk About The Budget

by Scott Bittle

Monday, June 28th, 2010

If anything comes through loud and clear about Saturday's America Speaks National Town Meeting on the federal budget, it's this: the American people can still grapple with complicated, even daunting, issues, and come to solid conclusions.

After last year's rough-and-tumble town hall meetings on health care, some people may have doubted whether civil discussion of complicated issues is even possible anymore. Yet some 3,500 people from all walks of life took time out on a weekend to spend more than six hours talking about the federal budget. The topic's not easy, and neither are the solutions.

Forums in 19 cities around the country came together, discussed the problem in a civil manner, and wrestled with no less than 42 options for addressing our long-term budget problems. They came up with some fascinating conclusions, such as:

  • Raise the limit on taxable (Social Security) earnings so it covers 90% of total earnings.
  • Reduce spending on health care and non-defense discretionary spending by at least 5%
  • Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million
  • Raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69
  • Reduce defense spending by 10% 15%
  • Create carbon and securities-transaction taxes

You can find out more about the national town meetings here. The event was organized by America Speaks, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and funded by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. (The MacArthur Foundation is also funding Our Fiscal Future).

So civil discussion is possible but it does have to be structured. The "open-mike night" atmosphere of many public forums can easily turn into just a way to express anger, without any discussion of solutions. In the public engagement approach used by Public Agenda, as well as the related strategies used by America Speaks and other groups, deliberative forums are designed to let people weigh the costs and tradeoffs behind each option, and make informed choices between them.

The National Town Meeting shows we can still have a productive discussion, even on the toughest issues and that's what we're going to need, if we're going to solve our budget problems in a way that lets us both pay our bills and preserve our values.


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