What happened to sacrifice?

Our leaders enable us to believe our problems will just go away

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Wednesday night, you may have heard, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will go head-to-head in their first presidential debate. What I most want isn't fireworks, though I'm as big a fan of political theater as the next hack. It's a word, one that has gone sadly out of vogue over recent decades and been mostly absent from this campaign.

Sacrifice.

I'm not holding my breath.

Mr. Romney, in his convention speech, never uttered it, and Mr. Obama, in his, said those three syllables just once in a singular context. He thanked servicemen and servicewomen who were fighting or had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for what they'd risked and endured, a sacrifice limited to them and their families and not shared by the rest of us. The rest of us enjoyed tax cuts even as the wars' costs drove the federal debt ever higher.

It's odd. We revere the Americans who lived through World War II and call them the "greatest generation" precisely because of the sacrifices they made. But we seem more than content to let that brand of greatness pass us by.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the end of his presidency, warned Americans about "plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow."

"We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow," he said, as the writer Evan Thomas recalls in a new biography, "Ike's Bluff."

But the last president to make a truly robust call for sacrifice was ridiculed for it. That president, Jimmy Carter, suggested only that we turn down our thermostats a tad and guzzle a bit less gas, and in July 1979 observed, "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption."

Then came Ronald Reagan, whose many great contributions to the United States were coupled with less great ones, including the idea, which has dominated our political discourse ever since, that we should speak only of morning in America and that optimism, like virtue, is its own reward.

It isn't, not if it crowds out realism, which we need more of these days.

The size of the federal debt and the pace of its growth can't be ignored. Economists disagree on how soon and aggressively to tackle them, but not about the eventual need to.

Yet we have tax rates that, by some measures, are near the lowest in the postwar era. We also have polls that show that a clear majority of Americans don't think our country is positioned to afford its children as good a life as its adults have enjoyed.

Conditions are ripe for a serious conversation about sacrifice. But this presidential campaign has been noteworthy for its nonsensical insinuations or assurances that although we're in a jam, we can emerge from it with discrete, minimal inconvenience.

This claim is most laughably manifest in Mr. Romney's ill-defined tax "policy," which promises lower marginal rates without any reduction in the amount of revenue the U.S. Treasury collects. Mr. Romney says that he intends to make this magic happen by closing tax loopholes, but he won't identify which, because God forbid any voter be told that he or she might have to surrender something advantageous. We live in a sacrifice-free bubble of volitional delusion.

Mr. Obama has lately taken to speaking of "economic patriotism," which is in some sense his euphemism for sacrifice. But the patriotic pinch he suggests is a tax increase only for households that make more than $250,000. They represent a small minority of American taxpayers, and a tax hike extending well beyond them would be necessary to raise enough revenue to solve our debt problems.

Campaign rhetoric, of course, is campaign rhetoric. Even so, the amount of it devoted to lessening our anxieties about any financial pain in the present is alarming.

Those of us with health insurance are encouraged not to fear any negative consequence from the attempt to universalize coverage, rather than being told that such a goal is worth some giveback -- which it is.

All of us are assured that the cost of Medicare can be contained without the program's beneficiaries' feeling a significant impact. Really?

What once made Paul Ryan exciting even to some moderates was his readiness to sing a more somber song and say: Folks, we can't have it all. But if you track his own changes to his budget proposals -- and then add the alterations that Mr. Romney layered on -- you hear a muffling of the summons to sacrifice.

Besides which, Mr. Ryan's notion of sacrifice is lopsided: diminished entitlements even for people who truly depend on them but not a cent more in taxes for affluent Americans like him. These days sacrifice is what you recommend for others, not what you volunteer for yourself.

How did that happen? One theory is the end of military conscription after Vietnam.

"As we baby boomers became adults, less than 1 percent of the population served in the military," wrote Matthew Paull, a former chief financial officer for McDonald's, and Steve Krause, the director of finance at the University of Chicago's business school, in an article in The New Republic last year. It was titled, "Why Are the Children of the 'Greatest Generation' So Selfish?"

"In World War II, that figure was over 10 percent," the authors continued, later adding: "With relatively few of us sharing the bonds, lessons and sacrifices of military service, perhaps there is little widespread experiential counterbalance to each of us pursuing only our self-interest."

I think the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists has diminished our attention to, and sense of, a communal good.

And cynicism about the intentions of politicians and the effectiveness of government has become an easy out: Why sacrifice in ways that plump federal coffers or reduce federal obligations when Washington can't be trusted to make anything better or get anything right?

I have my own trust issues. But they'd be lessened considerably if one of the candidates got up at the first debate and said that climate change can't be mourned from the back seat of an Escalade; that the future benefits of expanded health care and more affordable college have a price tag in the here and now; that pain is a precursor to healing; and that it's time to take our medicine.

opinion_commentary

Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.


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