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Washington Ignoring Real Problems in Front of Us

E. J. Dionne Jr. on

WASHINGTON -- While the United States remains utterly frozen in a debate about budget deficits and all the things that government shouldn't do, other countries are marrying public and private resources to make themselves stronger and more competitive.

While the United States is not even sure we should have gone halfway toward providing health insurance to all of our citizens, other democratic countries long ago began using government to cover all their citizens -- and have health costs far lower than ours.

While Americans pay less in taxes than the citizens of other rich countries -- and currently pay the smallest share of their incomes for taxes since 1958 -- one house of Congress thinks the only thing that can be done to help the country is to cut taxes even more.

While other countries have jumped ahead of us in green economics, we have backed away from any effort to put a price on carbon to battle climate change and promote new technologies. In the Republican Party, politicians have to apologize for even thinking about global warming.

And while other countries invest in their basic facilities, we are letting our roads and bridges, rail and water systems, and our broadband access go to seed. We created the interstate highway system, and now we can't maintain our sewers.

Oh, yes, and nearly 14 million of our fellow citizens are unemployed.

OK, now you can go back to the dreary deficit debate if you wish, but this catalogue is offered to suggest the irrelevance of our Washington conversation to the problems the country faces.

Our imagination deficit is the shortfall we should worry about. We seem incapable of doing what we did in the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and, yes, Nixon years: imagining how practical public action could make our citizens' lives better, our country stronger, and our private economy more productive.

Sure, we need long-term fiscal balance, and going back to and then reforming the tax rates we had under Bill Clinton would do much of what we need to do -- and cut the deficit faster over the coming decade than would Rep. Paul Ryan's plan, which is heavy on tax cuts.

The larger and more important challenge is to figure out how we can plan, invest and compete with countries far more focused than we are on how the new global economy works. And the people most amazed at our country's inability to do so are not armchair socialists but tough-minded CEOs.

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