When my car won’t start, the problem usually runs the gamut from A to B: I have no gas or no spark. Of course, the details are a touch more complex, but diagnosing the basic issue is a lot easier when you keep in mind the most likely culprits.
Diagnosing the problem when it comes to government spending is, likewise, not that difficult if you pay attention to the obvious: you are either taxing too little or spending too much. However, just as I would be doubly distressed to find my car had neither gas nor spark, the problem of excessive government spending is compounded when we both tax too little and spend too much. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, the problem just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger still—until it grows so large that it obliterates everything in its path.
As we have learned all too well over the past several decades, politicians too often make budget decisions with the same thoughtfulness we expect of a teenager with a credit card—I want it (or I want it for my friends), so I’m going to buy it now and worry later about the expense. When that credit card statement comes home to roost, there are only two alternatives when it comes to paying up for all the stuff you wanted to buy: bear the short term pain of paying it off now or somehow kick it down the road and worry about it later. It, of course, helps if your credit limit keeps going up so you can conveniently forget about the fact that you are sinking ever deeper in debt while continuing to treat yourself to everything you and your friends could possibly want. However, no matter how much you might wish it to be otherwise, the party has to eventually stop and the responsibilities of financial adulthood must be shouldered—as unpleasant as they might be.
Welcome to America in 2013. By somehow managing to both tax too little and spend too much for decades, blowing our money on the equivalent of a closet full of designer shoes while there is no food in the refrigerator and the roof is leaking, we have put ourselves in the unenviable position of sitting here—hungry and wet but exceedingly well shod—and wondering what tomorrow will bring.
Whether we are talking about infrastructure, healthcare, pensions, education, defense, or support for basic research, our nation is busily denying the obvious and dreaming of a magical trillion dollar coin—hopefully more than one—that will save us from our predicament. By continuing to yank out our credit card to pay for current expenses while continuing to fall even further behind in our bills, we prove we have yet to learn that either raising taxes or cutting expenses—and most likely a bleak combination of the two—is the only path out of our fiscal black hole. The question is no longer one of whether we need to pay—it is simply a matter of who will foot the bill and what expenses will need to be cut or eliminated in order to get our nation’s ledger sheet to balance.
This is, of course, a terrible time to be a politician because it will be necessary to do something that all politicians fear doing: making every single voter a little bit (or more than a little bit) angry. The wealthiest will have to pay more—likely much more—in taxes. The middle class will have to say goodbye to some cherished tax breaks and programs. The lives of the poor—already grim—will become yet grimmer. Corporations will have to devote themselves to the task of providing high-quality products and services rather than lobbying for tax loopholes. Top executives in both the public and private sectors will have to learn to be content with mere wealth instead of the outsized paychecks and lifestyles that we all fund through either our tax dollars or a higher cost of goods and services. Results, rather than good intentions, will have to drive our decisions about how we spend tax dollars at every level of government, and the term “pet project” will have to be banished from our political vocabulary.
Instead of acting as the purveyors of a never-ending stream of cash, our elected officials will have to learn to be sharp-penciled cost cutters with a flinty devotion to the bottom line. We will, in other words, have to turn our entrenched, dysfunctional, and self-interested political, economic, and social cultures on their collective heads for the foreseeable future and rediscover the merits of thrift and responsibility. As I pointed out earlier, it is terrible time to be a politician because, sad to say, it is likely that the majority of our leaders would be happier to just pretend there is no problem so they can keep partying like it is 1999. After all, there must be a credit card in a drawer somewhere that we have not quite maxed out, right?
The decisions we will have to make at this critical juncture will be difficult for many; one person’s wasteful spending is, after all, another person’s paycheck, so becoming lean will inevitably lead to charges of being mean. There is, however, little that can be done to avoid this other than ensure that everyone gets nicked just a little. This will mean ignoring the lobbyists and listening to the citizens, but given the influence peddling that so often now masquerades as our legislative process, this may be a challenge. This is, however, a challenge that we must shoulder today if we want to avoid the dark tomorrow now beckoning us forward.
Many decades ago, John F. Kennedy put a question to our nation in a different time and context that still applies to us today: “my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”. Whether we can still come together in common purpose, set acrimony aside, and do the difficult and distasteful work involved in righting our ship state should not be an open question, but perhaps it should not be surprising that many believe we have lost the will and ability to manage our own government because our elected officials seem to have learned—all too well—to rely on a toxic combination of campaign cash and demagoguery as a substitute for leadership.
We are not suckers, but we sometimes act and vote as if we are. We are too often perfectly willing to believe that we must elbow others aside to grab something that is rightfully ours because some screaming head on the television or radio told us so. We are, therefore, unwitting accomplices in creating the very political gridlock—in all its ugly and divisive manifestations—that we claim to despise. If we continue to fear the future—rather than working to shape it—it likely will be just as awful as we imagine it will be. And we will have no one to blame but ourselves if this is what happens.
If we can, for just one moment, stop listening to the most shrill, stop following the most disgruntled, and stop enabling the most corrupt, we can begin to put our fiscal house back in order. However, if we continue—though either action or inaction—to support those who continue to do harm to our nation’s economic and social well-being, we will truly reap what we sow: a country intractably divided, a treasury unendingly empty, and a people’s aspirations unremittingly frustrated by those who can only see as far as the next election cycle.