Recently, David Wessel, a Wall Street Journal columnist, asked me a daunting question -- indeed, a haunting question: Where have all the corporate statesmen gone?

He noted in particular the unprecedented silence of the Business Roundtable about the ever-widening deficits -- in government spending and U.S. trade -- that pose a major threat to both capital formation and economic performance over the next several decades. In serious discussions of national policy, this issue is like an elephant in the boudoir: You need to shut your eyes tightly to avoid noticing it. So why, Wessel asked, aren't we business leaders speaking out? And if we don't do so out of genuine civic concern, shouldn't we at least do so out of collective self-interest?

One might reasonably wonder, of course, whether Wessel was engaging in economic romanticism. Some might wonder if there ever were that many corporate statesmen. I started wondering myself: How many have I known or known about in my 50-plus years in business? The answer is quite a few -- but, lamentably, fewer and fewer as time goes by.

Let's start in the years just after World War II, a time of colossal challenge. At home, we were managing the transition from a wartime society -- including the demobilization of 19 million soldiers -- to a peaceful, prosperous economy. Abroad, we were trying to rebuild a shattered world economy devoid of rules or institutions.

A tiny bipartisan band of business leaders -- led by Paul Hoffman of Studebaker Corp., Bill Benton of Benton & Bowles, and Marion Folsom of Eastman Kodak -- formed the Committee for Economic Development. And they changed the history of corporate leadership. In their quest to avoid a repetition of the 1930s -- a decade of isolationism and beggar-thy-neighbor trade wars -- they championed a stunning array of bold initiatives: the Employment Act of 1946, the president's Council of Economic Advisors, the Bretton Woods institutions, the Marshall Plan.

They not only formulated initiatives but took the lead in selling and implementing them. When the Marshall Plan was announced, only 14 percent of Americans approved of it; the vast majority had had enough of our foreign adventures. These business leaders recruited other CEOs, including Tom McCabe of Scott Paper, John Stuart of Quaker Oats, Harrison Jones of Coca-Cola, Clarence Randall of Inland Steel and railroad entrepreneur and diplomat Averill Harriman, all of whom helped orchestrate a massive public education effort. Eventually, America changed its mind. Indeed, Paul Hoffman became the first administrator of the Marshall Plan. In the words of Jeffrey Garten, dean of the Yale School of Management, "They rose above the interests of any firm or industry and focused instead on the public interest through a pragmatic business lens."

In my younger CEO days, during the early 1980s, I had my own satisfying experience with private sector leadership. Reaganomics -- with all of its unsustainable excesses -- had been launched. Looking at the assumptions behind those rosy scenarios, it seemed obvious that we were headed in an anything-but-rosy direction. In talks with former cabinet officials, including two former Republican Treasury secretaries, Bill Simon and John Connally, there was unanimity on this point. With three Democratic Treasury secretaries, we launched the Bi-Partisan Budget Appeal. Several hundred CEOs joined our cause. Many observers on Capitol Hill believe that we played a significant role in moderating or reversing policies that threatened to inundate the federal budget in red ink.

To be sure, this effort was controversial within the Republican Party. I vividly recall Henry Ford II's sharp question, "Pete, why are you and your Republican colleagues carping? Have you forgotten this is a Republican administration?"

Of course we had not forgotten. I'm also aware that today's White House and both houses of Congress are led by my party. But that doesn't alter my belief that our long-term fiscal prospects look even more troubling now than they did in the 1980s.

Let's look again at the deficit twins in government and trade. Most serious analysts forecast that we face about $5 trillion in federal budget deficits during the coming decade, just when the baby boom generation begins to hit retirement age. At a time like this, we should be saving rather than squandering our resources.

The other "twin" refers to our unprecedented current account deficit, the broadest measure of the difference between how much we spend overseas and how much we earn from our exports. That deficit now stands at 5.4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) -- the highest in U.S. economic history. This deficit requires us Americans to borrow about $2 billion from foreigners every working day. No expert I know believes this is sustainable. And remember, other developed countries are aging faster than we are and their "baby boomer" bills are even larger than ours. Former treasury secretary Robert Rubin refers to these twin deficits as confronting a "day of serious reckoning." Former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker says there's a 75 percent chance of a crisis in the next five years.

Given this country's anemic savings rate and our dependence -- I would say our reckless dependence -- on foreign capital, one might have thought that we would be united in our efforts to redress this dangerous global imbalance. These twin deficits cry out for the strong, loud and bipartisan voice of private sector leadership.

Virtually every federal agency that monitors some aspect of our fiscal future -- from the Congressional Budget Office and the Treasury Department to the Federal Reserve and the Social Security board of trustees -- has lately been reiterating, in ever-stronger language, that our government and indeed our entire economy are on an unsustainable path, that we must begin spending less and saving more. According to the Office of Management and Budget's latest pronouncement, America faces $21 trillion (present value) in cash shortfalls over the next 75 years for Social Security and Medicare. To cover the rising cost of Social Security and only Part A of Medicare, the Social Security trustees project that payroll taxes, which fall heavily on the middle class, will have to rise to 25 percent of wages by the time today's newborns are starting their own families. This is unthinkable -- economically, morally, politically.

David Walker, comptroller general of the U.S. General Accounting Office, holds a 15-year congressional appointment and as such is beholden to no one. He has become a crusader for fiscal sanity. So stark are the projections, he insists, that even under a best-case scenario "we cannot simply grow our way out of this problem." He declared recently, "The simple truth is that due to known demographic trends and rising health care costs, we now face decades of mounting deficits. Left unchecked, these deficits will damage our economic future and diminish the opportunities available for our children and grandchildren."

The late economist and essayist Herbert Stein used to say that if something is unsustainable, it tends to stop. Or, as one wag put it, "If your horse dies, we suggest you dismount." The only real question is whether we get off the horse of our own accord -- or stay on the horse until it stumbles and sends us flying.

Fundamental fiscal reform and, in particular, reform of Social Security and Medicare is not an option; it is a necessity. And if we want the reform to be humane, it must begin soon. This probably means foregoing scheduled revenue cuts. It certainly means foregoing scheduled benefit increases. According to the Congressional Budget Office, recent tax cuts will in the long run reduce annual federal revenues by a steady 1 percent of GDP, whereas projected growth in federal pension and health-care benefits will cause annual federal outlays to grow indefinitely -- by 10 percent of GDP and still rising by the year 2050.

Congress, for ideological and political reasons, has for many years been gridlocked on this issue and thus is failing to take the lead. But does that mean that all the rest of us can fail as well? Can those of us who own or run businesses possibly be so shortsighted as to imagine that this impending fiscal tsunami doesn't threaten us at least as much as other Americans?

Henry Kissinger once walked into the White House briefing room and asked, "Does anyone have questions for my answers?" I only have questions, no answers. Some might call them excuses.

Is it that the corporate scandals have left us in business so morally crippled that we feel we lack public credibility? Is it because business has become so hyper-competitive, so global and so focused on corporate governance that it has no time left for anything else? Have too many of us forgotten that public policy is too important to be left to the politicians?

Is it that the media are in such a "gotcha" mode that we fear that, if we stick our heads up, it will lead to a public examination of our record with no wart or secret overlooked? Do we fear such an examination might label us hypocrites? In other words, is this a good time to be anonymous? Or is it because Washington has become so relentlessly mean and vindictive that we fear retribution if we occupy a lonely but sensible centrist position? In sum, do we feel that speaking out has more downside than upside?

Is it that the great big party of the 1990s, when many of us in business were getting fat, rich and happy and upper boundaries were disappearing, left us caring less about each other or about our own standards of behavior?

Do our stock markets so discount the future that we assume we are judged largely by short-term results? Is it, "If my tenure is only for four or five years, I, too, am 'entitled' to make it while I can. Let somebody else worry about our collective future."?

Some say we need to improve "the process," others that we need more communication and cooperation. Alas, in my experience, leadership springs not from big organizations, which can often head toward the lowest common denominator -- but from inspired individuals. We desperately need business leaders who have both convictions and the courage of those convictions.

Within the rising generation of CEOs, we desperately need more like Jeff Immelt of GE, who quietly but courageously restructured his executive compensation to expense stock options and put major emphasis on long-term operating performance. To keep a true long-term alignment between shareowners and management, Immelt has decided not to sell any of his stock until he retires. That's leadership.

We also need more Warren Buffetts -- more corporate John McCains -- who speak straight and sensibly about our collective future. When they talk, we listen. That's leadership, too.

We business leaders must answer the questions that our critics are asking. We make crucial contributions to our economic system. But we also reap the greatest rewards. If we benefit so much from this democratic arrangement, don't we have to make it more accountable, more durable and more fair?

True corporate leadership is a kind of business patriotism: It requires taking an honest stand on the great questions that face us. Patriotism is taking a chance -- and not just saying, "I got mine." Patriotism is putting ourselves on the line for those policies that we believe will help the long-term interests of our economy and our country.

Right now, America is running on empty. If those of us in business don't speak up, we can only blame ourselves when our country's engine of prosperity simply runs out of gas.

Author's e-mail:

peterson@blackstone.com

Peter Peterson, a former secretary of commerce under President Richard Nixon, is chairman of the Blackstone Group, a New York investment company. His new book, "Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Can be Done About It" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) was published last week.