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Editor's Note: 'Every man for himself' or 'the greater good?'

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 10:35 a.m. CDT

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“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
– John F. Kennedy

Well, we have avoided the fiscal cliff – for now. But the reckoning will have to come.

Maybe I’m wrong – I’m neither a financial expert nor a political analyst – but sooner or later,  we will have to address the root issues of this turmoil. I don’t see how we can avoid it. We keep treating the symptoms while the illness runs unchecked.

American essayist E.B. White (the “Charlotte’s Web” author, in addition to writing children’s books, was a prolific and brilliant essayist) once wrote something that said, in effect, politicians are not really in the business of molding the world into a better, brighter, more harmonious ideal; they are in the business of getting us through the day. His topic was nuclear arms, but the sentiment rings true when talking about finance, too. Our elected officials on both sides of the aisle, so full of vision and promise three months ago, now just want to keep our heads above water.

Politicians are also in the business of getting re-elected. From the standpoint of a casual observer, it seems many of them are more concerned with not rocking the boat than with taking the grand and risky actions that could get us out of this mess.

I admit, I don’t envy our leaders their task. Some massive, complicated programs need to be overhauled top to bottom to make them more efficient. Hard decisions need to be made, and hard decisions always make people uncomfortable.

Government needs to live within its means and make spending cuts – a difficult and terrifying task that has been postponed for too long.

When we talk about spending cuts, this is not something we the citizenry will sit back and watch happen. It will affect us. It will affect some of us greatly. And some cuts will probably hurt, both people already hurting and those who have thus far been relatively unscathed.

Several analysts I read after the fiscal cliff deal was struck commented on how politicians managed to do it without asking the majority of American people for sacrifices. I think our leaders need to show they are making sacrifices in their own benefits, as a show of good faith if nothing else, before coming to the people.

But cutting their own line items alone won’t do the job. It seems national sentiment is taking a turn toward “something must be done.” At the end of the day, what if that “something” is up to you and me?

A friend who remembers World War II likes to talk about the way the country came together then, with victory gardens and metal drives and rationing books, and how people were willing to make themselves less comfortable for the greater good.

If asked, would people come together like that again? Or has our trust in our leaders been so damaged it’s every man for himself?

A new Congress was sworn in last week. Here’s hoping they get their hands dirty, work together and, if needed, ask the people’s help to pull us back from the brink.

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