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An excerpt from the Introduction to


Commonsense Solutions to Americas Greatest Economic Challenges
By James M. Stone
Let me explain the title of this book. Americans, on the whole, are deeply
dissatisfied with the inability of our government to solve a host of
obviously consequential problems. Some are genuinely hard to solve
because they dont have solutions that equitably resolve nasty tradeoffs
between winners and losers. But the paralysis today is worse than that. Our
system cant even seem to deal with eminently solvable problems.
This book is about five of those. It presents straightforward answers to
several of todays most important public policy issues. Or, more precisely,
it asserts that straightforward logical answers to some issues are staring us
in the face, yet there seems to be no political path to their resolution. I
hope you will declare this an unacceptable state of affairs. Worse still, the key issues are too seldom
part of what passes for political debate these days. Politicians in both parties steer away from exactly
the subjects they ought to be addressing in favor of sound bites, gotchas, and mini-matters. My
book title, I admit, is slightly facetious because the logic of the five issues is not entirely beyond
debate and the politics may appear hopeless. But I wanted to make the point that these are issues
politicians should stop running from. An alternative title for the book was Too Big to Touch. Please
dont mistake the conversational tone or intentional lack of bombast in what follows for a belief that
the recommendations offered here are of small consequence or could be readily enacted. Together,
they are transformative and thus would be heartily resisted.
Americans disagree about many things, and so it shall always be, but I would wager at pretty good
odds that most of you share the concerns embodied in these five questions:

Are you confident that Social Security and Medicare will be solvent enough to meet their
promises when you and your children need them?

Do you want to live in a society in which a tiny fraction of the public and a few corporations
hold a greater share of the wealth and influence than has ever been the case in America before?
Can a society so tilted be as productive and stable, not to mention pleasant, as the America you
grew up in?

Must your health care cost almost twice as much as it costs your counterparts in every other
advanced nation, while our health system delivers objectively worse results than most of the

Why cant the schools of this affluent and admired nation train students not headed to college
for realistic careers and stop busting the budgets and burdening the futures of so many who do
go on to university?

Did we learn anything from the Crash of 2008? How have we allowed our financial sector to
accumulate even greater derivatives positions than prior to the crash, to concentrate its assets in

even fewer institutions than before, and to take home a massive and unprecedented share of the
economys profits?
I am a Democrat, but this is not a partisan book. Americans of every political stripe the Right, the
Left, the Center, the not-sures, and even the dont-cares s hare these concerns. Many talk about our
nation as adrift, with hazardous rapids not necessarily around the next bend but maybe the one right
after that, and surely somewhere ahead. I am not so pessimistic, but it is true that you are not getting
the deal you had counted on, and that your children have even slimmer prospects of getting it in the
future. We are still the most affluent and powerful nation the world has yet produced, and at little risk
of losing that status anytime soon. But most Americans today believe that we are leaving our rising
generation a society in worse shape than the one we inherited. If you believe that, you are probably
right . . . but it doesnt have to be.
As the problems grow larger, alas, it seems that our politics become smaller. It is standard fare in
civics classes to describe democracys requirement that officeholders find a balance between
representing and leading, between following the wishes of their constituents and acting on their
convictions. Similarly, there is a recurrent debate in campaigns for office between those who want to
follow the polls at some critical moment and those who want the candidate to demonstrate courage
and philosophical consistency. These tensions are inevitable, but todays balance is way out of
whack. Few current politicians dare to go beyond nearsighted polls, and those who do are often
dismissed in the media as hopelessly outside the mainstream.
Scanning this forbidding landscape, many of you may have concluded that issues like those I have
listed cannot be solved in ways that will provide any genuine benefits to you and your families.
Perhaps you feel that a better life for your children has rather unexpectedly moved out of reach.
America is in decline, some can be heard to complain; the century of America is in the past. To this, I
say nonsense. I could hardly disagree more. This is, in fact, exactly the attitude I wish to challenge.
That America has passed its peak is far from an inevitability. Ours is still the country that most
favors, at least in the private and academic sectors, intellectual challenge to the established ways of
doing things. And from this spring innovation and creativity no other society can match. The
advantage, moreover, is proving robust. I will try to persuade you that the public sector can tap into
this energy and become a worthier partner for the rest of the country if only it would adopt some
specific, commonsense policies. Only the will to act is missing; the course is relatively clear.
The course corrections I advocate are largely off the table in contemporary politics. There are three
ingredients of serious political progress, and all three are currently missing. The first is clarity of
vision pragmatic thinking about courses of action that will really work. I hope to provide a bit of
that here. The second ingredient I cannot provide. This ingredient is political leadership, at an
opportune moment for change, imbued with the unusual guts, charisma, and communications talent
to champion a bold change, even if it risks defeat and the polls suggest the public isnt ready to
follow yet. Politics is a tightrope for an elected official. You fall off to one side if you dont get
elected. You fall off as well, though, if you waste your opportunity to lead. An election to office is a
chance to demonstrate leadership, in both philosophy and action, to advance the values you believe
in. Public servants without idealism, politicians who dont care about improving their slice of the
world or promoting values to which they are committed, are little more than career freeloaders.

This is not, on the other hand, to suggest that all those who fail to bring about transformative change
are parasites. Some of the best in public life will try and fall short. It takes more than intellect, vision,
and personal courage, however admirable, to produce great leadership success. Timing counts, too. In
the history of any nation, there will be moments that particularly call for tilting toward compromise
and moments that call for leaning toward courage. This country has been remarkably lucky to have
great statesmen who have chosen a bold leadership path and rallied public opinion in times of
obvious crisis. Thats why we remember them as great. Ours are times of less apparent crisis. It
remains to be seen whether, in the absence of charismatic events, leaders will rise or the times will
allow them to rise to galvanize public opinion and act boldly in the common interest.
Clarity of vision and leadership, the first two ingredients required for change, are necessary but not
sufficient. The third ingredient of change is a countervailing force to set against the well-armed
protectors of the status quo. Constructive change will always find opponents in those campaign
contributors and lobbyists whose goals are antithetical to the public interest on any issue. This is an
inherent quality of democracy. Even in the best of times, the hand-to-hand political combat of reform
has been an uphill battle. And these are not the best of times in that regard by a long shot. The recent
tide has favored the already powerful. Of the three ingredients of change, winning the battle against
entrenchments is the hardest to count on. Ideas, even clear ideas, will certainly be offered from time
to time. History has provided the occasional brave and talented change agent. The battle against the
interests is more formidable. But I am sure it cannot be won without a clear agenda and the
emergence of courageous leaders to precede that battle.
Excerpted from 5 EASY THESES by James Stone to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on
May 3, 2016. Copyright (c) 2016 by James Stone. Used by permission. All rights reserved.