Sacrifice

ALBERT SEHLSTEDT JR.

August 13, 1992|By ALBERT SEHLSTEDT JR.

Reaching the biblical milestone of three score and 10 this summer, my thoughts are often of John R. Silber, the president of Boston University who narrowly lost the gubernatorial election in Massachusetts two years ago.

Dr. Silber, a Kant scholar, became known for his ''Silber Shockers'' in that campaign. He managed to upset a good many people with frank statements that political candidates are usually at pains to avoid.

My favorite Silber Shocker was: ''When you've had a long life and you're ripe, it's time to go.'' It was a remark in line with the general theme that old folk should let nature take its course rather than burden everybody else with the outrageous costs of desperate medical procedures to maintain a discernible pulse.

Though I am a card-carrying member of the American Association of Retired People -- which columnist Richard Reeves reports is the ''second largest membership group in the country, with dues-paying members second only to the Roman Catholic Church'' -- I would like to hear more voices like Dr. Silber's as election day approaches.

For example, it would be helpful if this time around President Bush would tell us if he expects to raise taxes in his second term, or cut ''entitlements.'' Gov. Bill Clinton does seem interested in taxing the rich, which is all right with me, but others contend that this windfall would only run the government for a period of weeks.

Governor Clinton got an enthusiastic response from the American Association for Retired People when he told its members that he would never cut Social Security benefits.

Surely that promise was welcome news for old people barely subsisting on their meager government checks, and it should have been. But what about people who are not living on the edge?

Let's be serious, if only until November. Does any thoughtful voter really believe that this debt-ridden nation, unable to solve deep racial problems or stem the flow of drugs, can avoid some form of future sacrifice? If it comes out of everybody's hide fairly, who can fairly complain?

But what would we sacrifice?

Without getting as specific as the IRS demands every April, let me say that my wife and I are debt-free, own our 40-year-old house and a 5-year-old automobile.

Certainly we could survive, say, a $50 cut in our monthly Social Security check if the government would earmark the money to help -- really help -- a fumbling geezer living in doorways, or a young mother attempting to hold her family together, or a frightened teen-ager in South Central Los Angeles trying to make it through high school.

It seems reasonable to suggest that there are a good many other people who could endure comparable cuts if the need for the sacrifices were made clear to them. Consider the gas and food rationing imposed upon Americans in World War II. It wasn't fun but it worked.

Ross Perot had a wonderful plan. Cut $300 billion from entitlements, he suggested, but in the end he ''chickened out,'' Michael Kinsley commented in a recent issue of The New Republic.

''In the end, he didn't have the guts to tell the voters what he knows is the truth,'' Mr. Kinsley observed. ''But don't be too hard on the guy. Bush and Clinton also know the truth and are afraid to say it. They have chickened out, too.''

Opponents of Social Security cuts, and they are legion, argue with some logic that the recipients of these entitlements earned their pensions during long years of hard work.

But if you don't like this kind of sacrifice, how about another one? Think about it. The alternatives can be more annoying than parting with cash. Helping out at a soup kitchen or nursing home would be a sacrifice. Being a foster father to a troubled youth would be a considerable sacrifice.

Parting with some of your income may begin to seem less disturbing when compared to these time-consuming alternatives, fraught with such inconveniences as the troubled youth calling you in the middle of the night because his mother's beau is beating him.

Lest I begin to sound like Mother Teresa, let me say that I have never been celebrated in my neighborhood as a public-spirited citizen. However, after 40 years as a newspaperman, including several years sitting in the press galleries on Capitol Hill listening to legislators say things that didn't make sense, my spirit rises when I hear people speak hard truths.

A few ''Silber Shockers'' from the president and the Arkansas governor would freshen the murky August air as we all march toward election day, and God knows what else.

Albert Sehlstedt Jr. is a retired Baltimore Sun reporter.

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