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Goldmark: Let's get talking to save nation

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Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Dear reader,

This column will be contentious because it discusses the grave economic danger our country faces. It may challenge or contradict your present thinking.

If we were sitting down face to face, I would lean forward and say to you: Our country is in danger of going off the rails economically. We can all feel the downward slide accelerating. But we are divided, and to act together we've first got to learn to talk with each other again. And the first step toward talking together is to listen to each other carefully.

I ask you to listen. And I will in turn listen. Write me at peter.goldmark, and I'll answer you. Tell me, simply -- without reference to ideology, party or magic potions -- what do we need to do? For now, let's concentrate on goals.

Here is my list:

We need to get many of the 20-plus million looking for work back earning again.

We need to make sure wealthy individuals (those with an annual income of $1 million or more) and corporations pay more, not less, in taxes as a percent of their income than the rest of us. We need the revenue, and we need a fair tax system that is not twisted to benefit the rich.

We need a large capital infrastructure investment program, because retail consumer spending and housing bubbles will no longer drive the economy. Modernizing infrastructure will create jobs and make us more competitive, which makes the whole economy stronger. And we can load the infrastructure program up with jobs.

We need incentives for state and local governments not to lay people off. We want those dollars and jobs pumping through our economy; we don't want to choke them off -- that creates blockages in the system, the economic equivalent of a stroke.

We need to reform our entitlement programs -- Social Security and health care in its many forms -- so they still serve those in need but don't grow faster than the economy. I said "reform," not destroy.

In sum: We should invest capital in our future and create jobs, insist the rich carry their fair share, size our benefit programs to our means, and as we put people to work, embark on a five-year program to erase our operating budget deficit.

This will require increased taxes on all of us.

I'm a crusty old budget director and I know how to balance budgets. Incredibly, what the nation did last decade was reduce taxes and increase spending -- and then pretend we'd discovered a magic potion that would make everything come out OK. Now it's time to pay the piper and get back on track.

Avoiding a serious depression requires the steps above plus higher taxes. There is one, and only one, piece of good news in this brutal fact: The amount we have to raise in taxes now to avoid a depression is much less than we will have to raise later if we keep on digging the hole into which we jumped because of our own witlessness.

The hour is late. Which of my goals do you disagree with? I'm not for abandoning the poor and the sick, or putting more people out of work rather than back into jobs. I won't support tax cuts for the rich while middle-class working folks carry the burden. I support Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security -- but they cannot be allowed to grow so fast that they sink the whole ship.

There are ways to implement these objectives that are smart and effective. But first we have to stop yelling at each other and agree on those objectives.

Which of mine do you disagree with?

With respect, your fellow citizen,

Peter Goldmark


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