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Monday, June 28, 2010

America Speaks - Our Budget, Our Economy

I had the opportunity to participate in the Silicon Valley session of the America Speaks "town hall" meeting. This was one of 19 connected meetings held throughout the US with over 3,500 people participating together. The Silicon Valley session was supported by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

I was very impressed with the logistics. We all heard the organizers speaking from Philadelphia. The answers to questions we discussed at table groups were immediately input to the "theme team" in Philadelphia so that common answers could be shared. In addition, we used clickers to record answers to many questions throughout the day.

There must have been at least 100 people at the Silicon Valley location. Everyone was respectful and civil and we all seemed to have a good time - it was a well run event.

I think it was a good opportunity for people to learn about the basics of the federal budget - revenues and spending elements and the existing and upcoming shortfalls. Various options were given. While these were scripted, that was necessary if we were to get through a tough exercise in a short amount of time. But we were able to give comments on the scripted budget choices. For example, it seemed that a majority (or at least a very vocal minority) contributed that the best solution to health care would be a single-payor system (or some called it Medicare for everyone).

I think a few people were concerned that Social Security changes, such as increasing the retirement age and reducing the inflation adjustment for current payouts, were on the list of budget options. However, the reality is that when some of the largest expenditures in the budget are mandatory ones (Social Security and Medicare primarily), they can't be ignored in looking for over a trillion dollars to balance the budget. One person shared that Social Security didn't cause the problem so should not be changed. I think that is interesting (and wrong). The failure to update the Social Security rules for changes in how we live and our demographics IS a problem. When Social Security was created, life expectancy was below age 65 (see SSA page). It hasn't been that way in decades.

Addressing the problems that cause our current finances to be unsustainable are difficult. Despite having to simplify many issues, I think it was a good educational experience for everyone in terms of learning more about the budget and that we can all learn something from civil discussions.

There were two, concise and helpful documents prepared for participants:
America Speaks will present the results to President Obama's Deficit Commission at their June 30 meeting. I heard a few people express concerns that that would be misleading. I think the Commission is smart enough to take it for what it is - an assemblage of over 3,000 voices with scripted options, but also written suggestions. Commission member Dr. Alice Rivlin was at the Philadelphia session and even spoke to everyone near the end. So she knows how the input was assembled.

If you participated in any of the 19 sessions and want to share a comment - please do, and note the city - thanks.

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