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Resolving the budget deficit will take more than just cuts

A national problem-solving exercise shows that this problem will require a lot of political will.

I am not sure how you spent the Saturday before last, but my wife Sally and I were among the 3,500 Americans who spent most of that day solving America's deficit problem.

In 19 cities across the country, including our site at the University of Maine campus in Augusta, citizens much like you and me got together to practice collaborative democracy as facilitated by America Speaks, a non-partisan non-profit that specializes in large group problem solving.

We were randomly assigned to tables of seven or eight people. Each table had the task of coming to agreement on a combination of federal expenditure cuts and tax increases that added up to $1.2 trillion by the year 2025.

If the $1.2 trillion by 2025 sounds arbitrary, it is not. In the well-researched background material that we all received prior to the meeting, the rationale for these numbers and time frames was clear and reasonable. Reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion would lower the overall deficit by 2025 to just 3.2 percent of GDP -- a level that is sustainable for America's long-term future.

So far so good, but $1.2 trillion is, as they say, a non-trivial sum of money. Wherever would we come up with such a total?

Thankfully America Speaks provided us with 41 options from which to choose. About half of the options involved spending cuts and half involved raising taxes in some way. However, they were approximations. Some were overly general.

For example, when it came to defense spending, we simply had three options for different across-the-board cuts. Some options were left out, such as moving to a single payer system in health care. Nonetheless, these options did a reasonable job of approximating the things policy-makers likely have to tackle.

My first instinct in taking on the task was to check out some options I knew I could support and see how close to $1.2 trillion I might be. I started by looking at the option to raise the age for receiving full Social Security benefits to 69. This saved $37 billion -- a good start, but quick math suggested I would need another 40 of this size to reach the goal.

So I started scanning for options that would come up with bigger savings. Creating a carbon tax would add $186 billion to my list -- an excellent policy idea as well. Now I was beginning to hum.

However, I felt I needed more cuts rather than increased taxes because increased taxes can have a dampening effect on the economy.

OK, surely the defense budget can be cut by 10 percent for another $88 billion. Doing some limiting of tax deductions added $145 billion. Medicare spending reductions produced $100 billion.

I felt I had done a good job of balancing fairness with the need to bring deficits under control, and yet when I totaled my options, I had $556 billion, not even halfway to the goal.

That is pretty much the way it went at our table. Most of us could get about half-way there but then we were flummoxed. In the end we really didn't have time for a full discussion of the hard choices remaining. As we had built trust along the way, we were able, in a final crash of side deals and frenzied bargaining, to get agreement on options that totaled $1.1 trillion.

Most of us at our table left with new appreciation for the magnitude of the task that faces our elected representatives and for the amount of shared sacrifice to which all of us must reconcile ourselves. In choosing our options we paid scant attention to the politics of any option.

Nonetheless, it was clear to us that both program cuts and tax increases must be on the table. There is simply no other way to get the deficit to a manageable size.

At the conclusion we framed two messages to send to our political leaders:

"Abandon the failed politics of partisanship. You can't demagogue each other and expect us to trust you."

And ...

"Please find the political will to use this input as if it were coming from a powerful lobbying group -- which we are."

As we all went on our various ways, we did feel pretty powerful. America Speaks had given us voice, and we were determined to make the most of it. Now it is a week later, and the country shows few signs of improving.

However, I have my list. I know the set of 14 options that will give the next generation of Americans a fair chance in 2025.

I am not giving up until at least 12 of them are adopted.