The budget deficits from the first two years of the Obama administration are of sufficient magnitude to spring Dr. “Billions and Billions” Carl Sagan from his grave. Sagan could sue for copyright infringement for misuse of astronomical numbers.
On second thought, the figures now being bandied about are in the trillions, which no doubt would send the venerable atheist skulking back, perhaps muttering something about the “unsustainability” of it all.
Sagan would not be alone. Multi-trillion dollar deficits that generate debt obligations in the hundreds of trillions of dollars cannot continue even in the short run, at least not without that Fifth Horseman of Apocalypse—picture Darth Vader toting a wheel barrow filled with worthless scrip—showing up to hiss questions about the insanity of those who led America on its “March of Folly.”
Barbara Tuchman wondered the same thing in a book published with that name, in which she probed the mentalities and policies of political leaders who led their countries to destruction—and here’s the kicker—fully aware of what they were doing but not willing to stop themselves from doing it. More specifically, averred Tuchman, to qualify as “folly” a policy: 1) “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight;” 2) “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available,” and; 3) that alternative must have been in existence beyond the life of a single individual and recommended over time by significant political opposition.
By these criteria, the Renaissance popes, British government during the American Revolution, American presidents during the Vietnam War era, and several others as well, all get skewered, and rightly so. Their failures can all be explained by their “perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive.” To put the matter more colorfully, the leaders that Tuchman covered were lamentably immersed in “wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception.”
Echoes of wooden-headedness resound throughout history, from Trojans taking the wooden horse within their walls to current administration officials who continue to insist that the stimulus worked, the country is on the road to economic recovery, and Americans will learn to love a 2,300-page piece of legislation that few read and nobody understands. Lest Republicans feel too smug about Democrats’ current discomfort, they should be reminded that one of their own, George W. Bush, put his signature to a law roughly half that size—the 2003 Medicare Drug Benefit—and even that most iconic of Republican leaders, Ronald Reagan, still failed to produce a balanced budget, even during times of prosperity.
Which means that wooden-headedness transcends time, place, and partisanship, and further that if “eating crow” means being forced to acknowledge one’s own errors, then that repulsive bird should replace bean soup on the Senate’s famed menu, at least until members of both parties in each chamber acknowledge that they have often marched on the road of folly holding each others’ hands, and that we’re all in this together.
Indeed, all Americans have to be, if one is to take recent CBO estimates seriously, which mean that unless America stops its march of folly, federal government spending will go beyond that region where even the expression “out of control” still makes any sense. The CBO March 2011 report indicated that for the 40 years prior to Obama’s election, federal deficits averaged around 35 percent of the country’s annual GDP; that number rose to 62 percent by the end of 2011, the highest level since the end of World War II. Absent significant policy changes, that percentage will climb to 87 percent over the course of the next decade, reflecting an additional $9.5 trillion in debt.
Certainly the attention devoted to this subject over the past few years has been huge, but as Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff point out in their excellent treatment, This Time It’s Different, these numbers reflect conditions that kill countries. Indeed, instead of treating the greatest country on earth like a pampered and suicidal adolescent, American leaders must grasp that nations crumble under such debt; nations and empires and entire civilizations. Further, viable alternatives have been offered as well, including those advocated by a bipartisan Senate group as well as those from the president’s own debt commission, and most recently, by Congressman Paul Ryan.
So, what is the solution? Honesty and courage. Honesty on the part of our political leaders to explain America’s perilous situation and courage to do something about it, regardless of consequences to their own political careers, or even to their lives. Both traits were illustrated in a marvelous vignette recounted by Joseph Ellis in his Founding Brothers. After signing the document that pitted the newly proclaimed country against the most formidable world power the world had ever known, Benjamin Harrison quipped to Elbridge Gerry that his size and weight gave him a greater advantage over his smaller colleague, in that when they were all hung for treason, the corpulent Mr. Harrison “would die in a few minutes,” whereas the lighter Mr. Gerry would “dance in the air an hour or two before [he is] dead.”
These men were honest about the stakes involved, which they faced with resolution and courage and, if necessary, their lives. Today’s circumstances require no less.