Sacrifice: a concept too dated for today's Americans to want to get the app?

A distinguished Asian observer sees U.S. leadership that is craven in its refusal to ask the public for sacrifice. Amid all the economic challenges, the real test may be one of national character.

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A Fourth of July parade: Has American society lost the capacity to do more than celebrate what others sacrificed to give today's citizens?

A distinguished Asian observer sees U.S. leadership that is craven in its refusal to ask the public for sacrifice. Amid all the economic challenges, the real test may be one of national character.

Is “sacrifice” like “duty,” a dirty little word that no longer cuts it with 21st century Americans? Have we become too entitled and self-serving to even consider, let alone, support public policies that would ask all of us to give, to sacrifice something?

The current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not meant across-the-board sacrifice for the American people. They have been borne, disproportionately, by the lower-middle class and the poor, by minorities, and by rural communities. Soldiers may be hailed as heroes who have sacrificed to “protect our freedom,” but this talk risks being an indulgence in sentimentality when their sacrifice has not been broadly shared. Nor have the actual costs of war been borne by Americans. While at war, we have enjoyed tax cuts, with the costs being added to a mounting debt.

Now, facing the challenges of a recession that refuses to receed, of deficits that are frightening, and of a political impasse that is more than Halloween-scary, the American people could be challenged to shared sacrifice in order to have a better and stronger country. Are we capable of it? Are our leaders capable of asking it of us?

These questions are prompted by reading a recent very challenging article by Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished career diplomat who is now Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the University of Singapore, and author of “Can Asians Think?” and “The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistable Shift of Global Power to the East.”

Here’s Mahbubani on America in the Financial Times: “No U. S. leader dare to tell the truth to the people ... this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. ‘Sacrifice’ will be needed, and the American people know this. But no American politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told.”

Mahbubani goes on to argue that the dictatorships that are falling in the Middle East and democracies that are paralyzed in the West have more in common than we would like to think. The leaders of both aren’t telling the truth. They are lying. Western leaders aren’t telling their people the truth that this is not a normal recession. They aren’t telling the truth that sacrifice will be required.

What kinds of sacrifice? As I see it there are three. First, almost everyone will have to pay more in federal taxes. We will need to pay more for the services we want. That’s the simple truth that few are willing to face.

The hard lesson of this recession is you can’t have what you won’t pay for. That lesson is not only for individuals and families, but for the nation. The rich will have to pay more, but not only the rich. Everyone. Even the nearly 50 percent of Americans who now pay no federal income taxes will have to pay something, and they should.

Revenues will have to be raised, but not just by higher tax brackets for the wealthy. In fact, changing the brackets won’t make much difference. The rich know how to work that system. So, second, the tax code itself must be changed. It must be made more transparent and no longer function as a way of dispensing political favors.

Third, the cost of Social Security and Medicare will have to be reduced. The retirement age will need to be increased, as the bi-partisan commission on the deficit recommended a year ago.

This combination: raising revenues, reforming the tax code, reducing entitlements will mean sacrifice for most everyone. It should. And it should be broadly and fairly shared.

But is Mahbubani right, that no U.S. poltical leader can or will tell the truth? Is he correct in saying that “sacrifice” is the word that dare not be spoken? Have Americans become either so distrustful or immature that sacrifice is unimaginable?

Sacrifice means giving up something of great value for something of even greater value. It means driving an old car so your kid can go to college. In baseball, it means making an out and taking a seat so a baserunner can get in scoring position. It means giving up a Saturday morning to participate in a school cleanup. It means paying more today so kids tomorrow aren’t sadled with untenable debt. It means the rich paying more. And it means public-service unions giving up some protections that aren’t sustainable. 

A capacity for sacrifice is fundamental to personal character and to national character. Perhaps this recession is, at bottom, a character test.

Are Americans capable of sacrifice? Actually, I believe we are. We might not think so because we tend to hear most from those small angry edges of the electorate rather than the broad and solid middle.

We need leaders who tell the truth, who ask everyone to share the sacrifice and tell us how it can be done. We need leaders who are willing to tick-off some of their core constituents to make progress. We need Americans with a “can-do” spirit that, while it may have been severely diminished, can also be recovered.

We need sacrifice to be shared by everyone. If this is a capacity we’ve lost, then truly we are lost. But I don’t think we are.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.