Opinion Columns & Blogs

Where is our sense of sacrifice?

Sometimes it helps to take a step back from the details in policy debates to consider the larger issues in play — or not in play — so we can better understand precisely what is going on in our national politics.

This hit me as I was driving back to work last week, listening to a National Public Radio report about how hard it is to get anything done on climate change. This struck me as sounding familiar, and the longer I paid attention, the more it reminded me of finding an answer to our health care riddle. And you could say the same about the challenge in Afghanistan.

In fact, you can listen to a report about any of these subjects and come away with a similar conclusion: We're having a hard time solving each puzzle because that solution, in each case, requires sacrifice. And most of us generally aren't willing to make the changes necessary to resolve big problems.

Now, I'm not talking about our soldiers or those parents working late shifts to put food on the table. They pay an extraordinary price.

But by and large, it's hard to sell sacrifice. Part of that is a function of the human condition.

We put ourselves first. We often are lazy and don't want to change. We fear the unknown.

Part of the problem also is a function of our political leadership. While both parties have some really good public servants, the political breed, on balance, doesn't like asking us to sacrifice. Doing so could make voters mad, and, heavens, those in love with their power could lose their seats at the table.

So we live in a world where we all seem to want good outcomes, but we don't want to change our ways to get them.

Take the climate change debate, which is front and center again this week in Copenhagen. The changes the world needs will require many of us to rethink our ways.

For example, the cap-and-trade system of controlling carbon dioxide emissions being considered in Congress will hit some industries hard, including the many people who work for energy firms. We may as well be honest about that. But if we make changes now, our children inherit a more stable planet, which is the goal.

Or look at the health care debate. There is no way we can insure more people and control costs over time without changing the way medicine is practiced. The best idea is for Medicare and insurers to stop reimbursing health providers for each service and to pay doctors and hospitals for how well they care for us.

That's kind of spooky. Does this mean we won't get every test we want?

Perhaps, but we can't keep on doing medicine the same old way. Our pocketbooks can't afford it, nor can the federal budget. Unfortunately, there's not enough emphasis about this reform in the Senate's health bill, most likely because our leaders would have to ask us to change.

And then there's Afghanistan. Many Americans are getting squeamish, but we can't stabilize that distant land without grinding it out with a counterinsurgency strategy. That will take perseverance — as well as a way to finance the war so it doesn't worsen the deficit. Both will require sacrifice, but we must do it to keep Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan from becoming the spring-training homes for violent extremists.

None of these problems gets resolved unless we pay a price, as the Greatest Generation did for the larger good. It's a matter of acting now so we have a better world in the future.

This is a sobering topic amid the Christmas holiday swirl, but it's the unpleasant truth. And while the right policy details matter, what matters more is that our leaders ask us to give of ourselves — and that we show the will to respond.