- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 31, 2005

Last month there were two important reminders by senior policymakers of the fiscal tsunami coming our way.

First, Federal Reserve Bank Chairman Alan Greenspan spoke in London on Dec. 3 on international imbalances. Despite his proclivity for speaking in deeply arcane terms, the clarity of his warning underscored the concern: “If, however, the pernicious drift toward fiscal instability in the United States and elsewhere is not arrested and is compounded by a protectionist reversal of globalization, the adjustment process could be quite painful for the world economy.”

And on “Meet The Press” Dec. 4, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, warned working people would have to settle for less entitlement benefits than retired folks now get — period.

These are two important statements from serious thinkers on the weighty fiscal issues we face. These issues will not go away on their own — rather they are compounding at an accelerating pace even as they are ignored.

Mr. McCain sounded a bit of churlish when he emphatically insisted workers face reduced benefits — it was as if he were scolding them for even imagining it would not be so.

In one sense he is right. Workers are, after all, also voters. We are partly responsible for the people sent to Capitol Hill who have dodged their responsibility to make sensible adjustments to these entitlements for so long. In ceaselessly pursuing a career in office, they left these problems unresolved when their resolution would have been far easier. Now we face huge fiscal crises in Social Security and, more damaging, Medicare on the eve of the bills coming due. We voted these people into Congress. Our hands are not clean in these issues.

That said, however, they had the responsibility to act and did not. So when Mr. McCain sounds a note of criticism against working people for unrealistic expectations, let him remember they paid into the system over the years. They simply expect what legions of legislators promised, directly or by implication. It does no good to ask “how could you think such a thing” when the programs have been so consistent and so enduring.

Rather, Mr. McCain and other legislators should ask “what now, now that we have avoided our responsibilities this long?” It still makes sense to fix these issues rather than wait for international fiscal and monetary forces to fix them for us irrespective of our choices.

So I ask them, when they look at the senior generation and see nothing but a bottomless pit into which to throw Social Security and Medicare dollars, why not change the perspective. What else does this group represent? They are a well-educated, experienced and relatively healthy work force. They will want to continue working as sure as the sun rises in the morning.

Many seniors will want to pursue a second career, following their dreams rather than the need to support a family. Many will want to work part time from home.

At present, we discriminate against older workers. And we are furiously outsourcing jobs to China, India and other places because workers there are skilled, accept lower wages and are only a mouse-click away. Well, guess what? American seniors are only a mouse-click away in their kitchens and dens. They speak the lingo and understand the market and, yes, they too are willing to work for less.

Congress will need to unleash this pent-up work force. They will need to revise labor laws, health coverage and insurance coverage rules and the like. The Fair Labor Standards Act might need revision — is that asking too much of our legislators as they prepare to cut benefits?

This will require care — if you provide one group an advantage (by, for example, allowing seniors to work without access to health-care coverage younger workers have) you disadvantage others. Our legislation should not disadvantage U.S. workers.

But do we really care if we disadvantage foreign workers? I say that not out of animus but with a sensible notion we should take care of our own first.

Maybe companies that outsource jobs should nevertheless be required to pay the employers’ portion of FICA payments for the number of jobs it has supported overseas.

I honestly don’t know if that will work, but it might help move this debate off center and toward sensible policy. At the end of the day we should expect our legislators to lead. Period.

DAVID MCAULEY

McLean, Va.

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