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Can we talk? Can we get anywhere? 

Dialogue is good. It would be even better if someone would venture off script every once in a while. 

Fine folks in Fayetteville of diametrically opposing persuasions have begun holding forums on public issues. It started early in the year when freshman state Rep. Charlie Collins of Fayetteville, an arch-conservative Republican who seems perfectly sane otherwise, sponsored that blessedly ill-fated bill to permit faculty and staff members to carry guns on college campuses.  

In a spicy letter to the editor, Tom Kennedy, head of the local ACLU chapter, took Collins vigorously to task for the very idea.

They subsequently talked and found each other non-demonic, as often happens. 

So they put together a community forum on the gun issue. It went well enough that, on Saturday, they held their second forum. The subject this time was jobs and the economy, and they were kind enough to invite me to sit on a four-person panel at the Fayetteville Public Library.  

A balanced pan-el  — two guys left of center and two guys wrong of center — is symmetrical. So it is purposely structured to produce a tie.   

This forum lasted maybe 90 minutes. I can summarize as follows:

The two of us varyingly left of center, an economics professor and labor historian named Michael Pierce and I, believe government has the responsibility and right to tax the top margins of high incomes at a higher rate and to spend for stimulus on the demand side to prime the pump of what is an otherwise dangerously idling economy. We find alarming and unsustainable the growing gap between the few rich and the many poor.

The two wrong of center (or right, if you insist), Collins and affable local pizza mogul Rolf Wilkin, believe the economy will get better from the supply side. They believe it will do so by its own devices through the glories and innovations of the great American marketplace, but only if the government will cut taxes and reduce regulation. They believe the nation can best address the wealth gap by letting the marketplace work its natural and uninhibited magic. 

A gentleman down front quoted a clergyman as saying we would look unfavorably on a parent whose children ranged from the robust and well-fed to the malnourished, and that we should look with similar disfavor on a government whose citizens are so disparate in condition. 

Alas, I knew where that was headed. Collins was sorry for that disparity and said we need to work on it — by cutting rich people's taxes and eliminating business regulations, I'm pretty sure — but that our government is not our parent. Citizens bear more personal responsibility than do minor children, he said. 

There, then, is your debate: Just what is the nurturing responsibility and role of the government, of an economy? 

I'm with Pope Benedict XVI, who recently said, "The economy cannot be measured by the maximum profit but by the common good. The economy cannot function only with mercantile self-regulation, but needs an ethical reason in order to work for man." 

In other words, there must be more to an economy than making some people rich. If some are getting richer while others are going hungry, then the economy has no ultimate point or ethical merit.

There's not much middle ground anymore.

Pragmatic centrist politicians reach to the other side and get only formulaic cant in return. Maybe we simply must choose up and fight this out, to try to find our way out of the woods by walking straight in some direction, any direction, as our moderator, local editorialist Doug Thompson, put it. 

"We're screwed," Pierce, the economic professor and labor historian, concluded. His point was that our political system is so dysfunctional, so corrupted by money, as to be paralyzed, unable to rise to the dire economic occasion. 

Let's hope not.

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