“Don’t tax you and don’t tax me;
tax the guy behind the tree.

That badly worn piece of doggerel is heard around the halls of all state legislatures more often than the pledge of allegiance. Old and tattered as they may be, the words are an oft-repeated mantra the states – and nation – have followed far too long.

I’ve used this space to sound alarms as loudly as I can that this country is teetering on the edge of national bankruptcy and we need immediate action. The same can be said of all 50 states to one degree or another. If you think I’m an alarmist, read on.

First, the issue: how bad? CNNMoney.Com financial writer Jeanne Sahadi makes a dramatic point: at the moment, 76-cents of every tax dollar goes to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on our $14 trillion debt. So everything else the government does is paid for with the 24-cents per dollar left over PLUS borrowing more money.

Further, she writes, without serious efforts to curb growth of just the debt, by 2020, 92 cents of every tax dollar will go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest. Alone! Leaving government eight-cents for all else. Eight cents!

Put in dollar perspective, for tax year 2010, the feds collected $2.162 trillion in revenue. Now, 8% of that is $173 billion. That is one year of just our military expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan. One year! Without providing a single dollar for ALL other government spending. Not one dollar! Zero! Zip! Nada!

One thing more. Without serious action, by 2040, federal income would pay ONLY for debt interest and Social Security, according to Susan Irving of the Government Accounting Office.

Irving poses these questions for lawmakers and we taxpayers: “What should government be doing; at what cost; are you willing to spend that?” Or put another way, “What do you want government to pay for; what will it cover; will it take care of your priorities?”

Now, freeze all that. And add this.

The New York Times is reporting behind-the-scenes efforts have begun to allow states to declare bankruptcy. This would get them out from under the debts they carry, including pensions promised to retired public workers. Some states already have insolvent pension funds so money is being diverted from other essential services like health care and education.

Then there’s the matter of all the financial institutions holding state debt in bonds AND in some of those pension funds. If one or more states default through bankruptcy or other means, what would that do to the nation’s investment system? All of the investment system?

The issue is fraught with constitutional questions but some members of Congress are already asking for hearings.

These are just two of the critical issues on the table now. There are many, many more and there is no good news in any of them! We are in a hole nationally and each state has its own crevasse. Without absolutely the brightest minds in economics, banking and politics coming up with some major decisions very, very soon, we risk crumbling not only as a world power but as a nation.

So, what immediate action is Congress taking? The kind of “first day” action promised in the 2010 campaign? What committee assignments has leadership made to tackle these and other potentially devastating issues? On what emergency time line? None.

In fact, House Speaker Boehner put it this way: “I am not going to make specific assignments and set some sort of imaginary deadlines for action.” “No specific assignments?” “Imaginary?” In the immortal words of Jay Leno to adulterer Hugh Grant, “What the Hell were you thinking?”

Time already wasted trying to repeal the health care law, new unnecessary legislation on an already settled prohibition of federal dollars paying for abortions, canvassing private enterprise on what regulatory measures it’d “like repealed” … all of this points to a tone-deaf congress and mindless dedication to personal voter employment concerns. And more “business as usual.”

We are at a watershed moment in our nation’s history. States, too. For way too long, we’ve been trying to patch up and adapt a 19th century way of doing things in our political system(s) instead of heading off really critical emergencies – as we now face – by remaking government from the ground up.

At the risk of offending strict constitutionalists … and the many phonies that can only mouth “constitutional” words … we must face the fact that the founding fathers did a miraculous job for their times. BUT these are not their times and we are facing problems they couldn’t have imagined in a system – and with tools – they never dreamt of. We need some major structural changes in nearly all forms of government.

Without such new thinking … without redefining government at all levels … without creating a new and contemporary set of priorities for what we want government to do … without adoption of new ways to pay for the answers to those items … whatever less we do will result in failure.

We are standing at the edge of a very high cliff. One national foot is precariously in the air. We’ve been warned. What the Hell is it going to take to do what MUST be done?

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