As I write these words, the United States Congress is attempting to wrap up one of the most surreal, theatrical and plainly ugly legislative battles in its history. The Republican-majority House of Representatives and the Democratic-majority Senate cannot pass a bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling, putting us days away from defaulting on our own national debt. This would be the equivalent of declaring national bankruptcy within a world economy that has always considered our debt to be completely solid and reliable.
The noisy spectacle aside, most observers are confident that a last minute compromise will be reached. (If it isn't, I trust that the smart and sensible Barack Obama will take steps to ensure the nation's solvency using every resource available to the Executive branch. We are at least a couple of options away from economic catastrophe.)
But what does it all mean? Here's what I think about the bigger issues, and I'd love to hear what you think too. I'll keep this as brief and succinct as I can.
OUT OF CONTROL SPENDING
The budget deficit has gotten out of control, but let's remember that we had a balanced budget in the USA in the 1990s, thanks to the blessedly productive cooperation of liberal President Bill Clinton and conservative Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. A balanced budget is not an impossible dream (and we don't need a balanced budget amendment; we need a balanced budget).
How did we squander our balanced budget? Three ways. First was George W. Bush's overly optimistic tax cuts for the wealthy (I have no problem with tax cuts for middle-class Americans, but tax cuts for the wealthy was a gluttonous concept from the beginning.) Second was George W. Bush's bad habit of imagining himself to be Winston Churchill, inspiring him to lead the nation into two ruinous, pointless, expensive and terribly managed wars. Finally, there was the 2008 failure of the irrational system of "risk-free" high finance, a wealth-generating scam perpetuated by the likes of Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, AIG, Alan Greenspan and the deregulation-happy Republican party, which took our stable economy down with it when it crashed.
Yes, I mainly blame President George W. Bush and the Republicans for today's out of control spending. That's because I like facts. Sometimes when conservatives here me say this they erupt: "stop blaming Bush!". Why should I stop blaming Bush? Why should anyone stop blaming Bush? We had a balanced budget when he took office. His administration completely squandered it.
President Obama also takes some blame for continuing the Bush policies of high-spending stimulus and low taxes for the wealthy. There's no doubt that Obama has heard the message that we need more drastic spending cuts, and both houses of Congress have heard the message too. Let the hard work of cutting continue -- every American should support this. But we don't need a revolution to cut out-of-control spending. Again: we had a balanced budget, only two Presidents ago.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT IN OUR LIVES
I grew up a libertarian hippie kid in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s -- the era of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Back then, it was liberals like me who wanted the Federal government to have a smaller role in our lives. I still feel a warm affection for the basically rebellious and libertarian tendencies of the Tea Party movement, because I tend to like anybody who protests anything. But I think the Tea Party often picks the wrong targets to aim their protests at.
At its worst, what the Tea Party seems to yearn for (besides revenge and the pleasures of a huge public temper tantrum) is a nation less able to support its citizens with education, health care, transportation, infrastructure, scientific research, crime prevention, disaster response. (Revealingly, only a few honest Tea Party politicians like Ron and Rand Paul are willing to declare that the nation should reduce its bloated military budget. I believe we're better off cutting military spending than any of the other areas above.)
What should the role of government be in our lives? Well, tuning in to a conservative talk radio show recently, I heard a caller declare that the economy in the United States has gotten "as bad as it can get". The fact that the host of this show didn't immediately correct and ridicule this statement reveals how silly the hyperbole has become. This is as bad as it can get? 90% employment? Nobody dying in the streets? Vastly comfortable and luxurious lifestyles? Education, poverty relief, emergency services, crime prevention and other essentials of good government all in fairly good shape? Anybody who thinks that this is bad as it can get knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about the reality of our world, and really needs to learn a few things.
The photo at the top of this page shows something closer to "as bad as it can get": the current crisis in the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia and Ethiopia. Here are a few links about this terrible crisis, which is taking place right now, and getting no major media coverage. (The picture on the page is one of the mildest in the Atlantic photo essay -- most are too horrific for the front page of this literary site.)
America is "as bad as it can get". Heh. Idiots.
THE TONE OF THE DEBATE
We know it's been ugly, but is this the kind of debate we need to be having? Maybe so. Bill Vallicella, who appears to be a proud philosophical conservative in the same sense that I am a proud philosophical liberal, posted this on his Maverick Philosopher blog:
In sum, we Americans are fundamentally divided and in a way that is irreconcilable at the level of ideas. We do not stand on the common ground of shared principles and there is no point in blinking this fact. Left and Right are riven by deep and unbridgeable value differences. And so any compromises that are reached are merely provisional and pro tem, reflecting as they do the fact that neither side has the power to clobber decisively the other and push the nation in the direction in which it thinks it ought to move.
He sums up the tone of the moment pretty well, though I suspect the politics of identity -- ethnic, regional, cultural affinity -- have a lot to do with the fact that conservatives were willing to enthusiastically endorse massive out-of-control debt spending under President Bush and President Reagan, but balk at the same style of government when practiced by President Obama. Regardless of the roots of the battle, though, there is no doubt that our country is currently split on ideological grounds. This is an opportunity for reflection, an opportunity for all of us to look within and aim for greater understanding.
Our country, of course, has been badly split before -- during the Vietnam/Watergate era, during the FDR administration, and 150 years ago during the Civil War. That last reference point is another useful one to keep in mind when we ponder how things could get "as bad as they can get".
That's what I think. Now, I'd like to know what you think.