The Monitor's View

Tap America's spirit of sacrifice

People are driving less because of high gas prices. What else might they give up?

Americans can be good at collective sacrifice. During World War II, they were encouraged to buy war bonds and lived with rationed gas, coal, and foods. During the 1970s oil crisis, they had to slow down to 55 m.p.h. But what about now, when the country faces pricey challenges, from global warming to over-heated healthcare costs?

Historically, it has usually taken a crisis, accompanied by a rallying cry from the Oval Office, to encourage people to tighten belts or shoulder a common burden.

Today, it's gas prices as high as a Dubai skyscraper. For the first time in decades, Americans are doing without on a national scale – driving less, taking the bus more, and ditching roomy SUVs for small cars.

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It's encouraging that people are responding on their own. Imagine how they might react if they were publicly petitioned to sacrifice for such urgent problems as crumbling transport and overextended entitlements?

For political leaders to tap a burden-sharing mood, the public needs to recognize the acuteness of an issue. With infrastructure, that's obvious. Just ask anyone stuck in America's congested airports or concerned about its weak bridges.

In order to satisfy just surface-transport needs, though, states and the feds must invest at least $225 billion a year for the next five decades. They're paying less than half that. Citizens in more than a dozen states have agreed to higher gas taxes in recent years. But more user fees will be required in tolls, congestion fees, and a higher federal gas tax.

A challenge such as global warming is not as visibly dramatic as a collapsed bridge in Minneapolis. Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth," raised awareness, and opinion surveys show many Americans now willing to adjust their thermostats to reduce carbon emissions.

But the cost of energy innovation will demand more than that. How much, is not clear. But doing little now will mean a higher cost later.

An even tougher sell for sacrifice is the national debt – a pending financial crisis left for our children and grandchildren. By 2040, the federal government will be spending more than twice as much as it raises in taxes. Like global warming, it can't be seen now, yet now is the time to tackle it.

In August, the documentary "I.O.U.S.A." will be released in theaters, promoted by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Will this be enough to convince seniors, for instance, that those who can afford it may have to give up some Medicare benefits? Expanding healthcare costs – whose share of the federal budget has doubled in the last 20 years – represent the single biggest threat to the government's fiscal health.

Candidates don't usually ask for sacrifice. Barack Obama wants a national infrastructure bank, but would feed it chump change. John McCain promises a balanced budget, but he is vague on specifics.

The vastness of the challenges ahead will require greater national burden sharing – a willingness to invest, to cut back, to change priorities. Politicians themselves will have to act as role models, starving pork spending, for instance.

Candidates at all levels may be surprised by a public more willing to sacrifice than conventional wisdom holds. But the case has to be made, and the request, too.

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