Improving Economy Is Job One

Published Nov 6, 2012. By Jay Miller.

The next president will face new challenges that no one can foresee. But it does not require a seer to identify ongoing ones that inevitably will greet him after the swearing-in ceremony. They include the sluggish economy, a debt crisis, issues surrounding an aging population, immigration, education and terrorism.

Despite the fact that we live in a country, and state, split down the middle politically, almost everyone agrees that the economy stands out as the No. 1 priority. Making progress there can improve the outlook on a number of fronts, including national security.

The next president should start with jobs - recognizing that only the private sector, not government, can grow jobs without exacerbating the already-perilous deficit. What the government can do, however, is fix the tax code and streamline regulations.

Businesses abhor uncertainty, and that partially explains why some companies are hoarding cash, instead of investing in plants. Who can blame them when they don't know how and at what rates they and their products or services will be taxed? The tax code can be dramatically simplified, made more transparent and still raise the same amount of revenue or more. It just takes willpower to ward off lobbyists.

Likewise, Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank and the Affordable Care Act ought to be revamped. They overwhelm businesses with mountains of regulations. Although the president and Congress must make sure that rogue investment bankers and others are deterred or punished, let's not overcompensate by punishing everyone else in the process.

The president must reckon with the deficit, too. Along with a humming economy, that requires a sharp curtailment in the growth of spending and even raising additional revenue. Social Security and Medicare can no longer be regarded as off limits, and a capital gains tax rate of 15% is probably too low. Neither AARP nor Grover Norquist should have veto power over these decisions.

Where should the president go for guidance? The Simpson-Bowles Commission already has provided a partial road map that gained the approval of a majority of its members, including both ultraliberal Dick Durbin, senator from Illinois, and ultraconservative Tom Coburn, senator from Oklahoma.

Beyond that, the nonpartisan and highly respected Concord Coalition is a valuable resource, as Diane Lim Rogers, its chief economist, demonstrated at a recent "On the Issues" appearance at Marquette University.

Another critical component to the nation's recovery is finding more qualified workers. We are a nation that is aging. Roughly a quarter of our population is made up of baby boomers, who are beginning to retire en masse. That puts an inordinate strain on our health care and other support systems.

To address that trend, we need to liberalize our immigration policy and focus on better training for those who are already here. This is a state, as well as a national, problem. Tim Sullivan, former CEO of Bucyrus International, recently spoke (also at Marquette) about how his company was unable to fill available jobs in Wisconsin due to a lack of workers with the necessary skills.

None of these steps can happen without a president, or governor, who leads and talks to the public convincingly about the tough decisions ahead. The president also must bring together people from both sides of the aisle. Neither major political party has a mandate.

In some other time and place, maintaining the status quo, and scoring political points at the expense of opponents, might be good enough. That is not the case today. We are staring at the prospect of a fiscal train wreck. Our next president must meet it head-on.

Jay Miller of Whitefish Bay is a tax attorney. Email [email protected]