Our Clear and Present National Debt Crisis

Jim L. Riley, Ph.D.

Fall, 2011

            Continuing counterproductive, shrill and acrimonious battles over how to deal with our nation’s ever growing debt problems (federal, state, local and personal) are traceable in large measure to a few fundamental characteristics in our nation’s present condition.  Unhappily there exist many good reasons to believe that current political ineptitude presages worse to come.  Nevertheless, national redemption is still within reach.

          The full impact of a global economy has clearly created massive problems for America’s blue collar and middle class workers.  International competition has forced American businesses to seek ever more efficiencies mandating fewer employees to be paid at wages competitive with foreign scales.  Recent technological and communication innovations, in particular the development and refinement of the internet, have produced requirements for ever increasing productivity from fewer and fewer highly skilled workers.  The remaining unemployed and unemployable demand increasing benefits from governments already overburdened with self-imposed obligations to virtually all segments of society.

          We have seen tens of millions of the baby-boomer generation demonstrate an unwillingness to invest in the future preferring instead to go into highly risky and often unsustainable  debt to finance the acquisition of unaffordable expensive luxuries.  Our educational system, once the envy of the world, has degenerated through a lowering of standards and expectations coupled with all too often incompetent teachers supported by greedy self-serving unions and bloated educational bureaucracies.  Whereas performance was once the measure of achievement in our schools, developing a sense of self esteem has too often been lauded as all that is needed.  Television, the film industry, and other forms of entertainment seem to continually create new lows in terms of glorification of violence, degeneracy and poor taste.  These and many other examples of social decline have been accompanied by a general sense of entitlement, dependency and self-indulgence directly at odds with traditional American values of self reliance, independence, and a desire to work hard for a better future.   

          More immediately, the financial crises that have recently buffeted our nation have helped create a devastating but unevenly felt recession resulting in massive increases in annual deficits and in the overall debt with no credible end to their increases in sight.  During flush times of general growth in economic wealth, accompanied with an optimistic perception of broad personal opportunities, compromise over public policy was relatively easy.  While each contending side might get less than that which was initially sought, all interested groups gained something.  That time of a growing economic pie sufficient to provide some satisfaction to all is gone. 

          We now live in an era in which public policy more resembles a zero-sum-game in which one side’s victory means the other side’s defeat.  Gains by some mean losses by others.  Optimistic views of a better future for our nation and our progeny have been overshadowed by pessimistic fears of a bleak horizon.  Faith in a rising and better America, long a mainstay of our country’s culture, has largely disappeared.

          Consequently, in a domestic version of “beggar thy neighbor” Democrats and their liberal supporters want a redistribution of wealth with  policies mandating more benefits for those who have less while paying for them with wealth from those who have more.  Contrariwise, Republicans and their conservative friends seek to protect the wealth and position of those who are more successful and fortunate.  Although there is little new in this tired struggle, it has become more intractable and bitter as hope and faith in a better future declines.

          Unsustainable promises made to clamoring special interest by governments now present extraordinarily difficult choices to policy-makers.  Legally mandated benefits/expenditures constitute almost 70% of the federal government budget.  Reducing or eliminating any of these has become nearly impossible.  

 A sharply divided public has elected members of Congress excessively sensitive to constituents’ demands and campaign contributors.  Elected officials and their minions are increasingly composed of political entrepreneurs, often elected from gerrymandered safe districts, overflowing with ideological fervor thus disabling legislative leaders of the power to strike bargains and convince or coerce fellow party members to go along with negotiated compromises.  The results are great dangers to our nation which is now less of a republic and more of a democracy that correctly was viewed by the framers of our Constitution as the most vile form of government. 

John Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage chronicled several instances in our nation’s history when members of Congress took action that was contrary to the wishes of their constituents in the belief that national well being trumped the desire for electoral victory.  Sometimes this meant banishment from any future political career.  Where is that courage today? It seems that former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski was correct when he said of a Congress during the Reagan years, “Don’t look for any profiles in courage here."  Clearly this sad commentary on Congress applies today as well.  Whether the present "Super Committee" designed to propose deficit reduction measures will succeed in its task remains to be seen.  Specific and credible solutions to our economic and financial problems have previously been presented (see the Deficit Reduction Commission Report) but followed by no congressional action of any significant consequence.  Will there arise the necessary political courage in the Committee and then in Congress to take the necessary steps?  We shall see.

We have the knowledge, the skills, and the resources to reverse course and do what is needed.  The lack of political will/courage to enact these policies is in large part directly traceable to the nation’s conditions described here.  Although history demonstrates that all governments and social systems eventually fall, this does not have to happen presently. Despite the impediments noted, perhaps as a nation we can once again prove that, as Lincoln once pondered, the concept of popular self government is not an absurdity and with effective presidential leadership coupled with wise congressional followership America can now still save itself.