What, me worry?

Jeff Jacoby in the Boston Globe notes something I agree with completely:

“ALFRED E. Neuman isn’t running for president this year, but he might as well be. The United States is speeding toward a fiscal cataclysm, and the leading presidential candidates treat the subject with a nonchalance worthy of Mad Magazine: What, me worry?”

Jacoby notes that the debt is nearing $10 trillion, we’re expected have record deficits this year and next, approaching $500 billion. Taken alongside the housing crisis, the credit collapse, and the dollar’s continuing weakness, this points to an economic cataclysm that could make the next decade extremely difficult. Jacoby also notes (as I have as well) that the baby boomers are about to retire, and this means not only a massive strain on social security, but instead of paying into 401 K plans, they will be withdrawing from them. The impact on the stock market could be very negative. In fact, this could lead to a major collapse in America’s position in the world, something I’ve discussed before.

You’d think this would be a central theme in the campaign, that people would be focused on figuring out how to deal with these structural problems that threaten our very way of life. Instead, the candidates are oblivious, hence Jacoby’s comparison to Alfred E. Neuman. To listen to Obama and McCain speak, you’d think that our problems are simply the result of some bad policies that need changing. They show no sign that they understand the immense challenges facing us in coming years.

They can’t. For McCain, a recognition of the reality of the situation would mean either embracing the possibility of tax increases (anathema to a Republican) or real, intense cuts in government spending. While in the abstract Republicans rail against government programs, when it comes to specifics they are hesitant to recommend real cuts. They know that the public likes broad attacks on government excess, but becomes fickle when their favorite programs or issues are threatened. But to keep it vague, he can’t give numbers or really address the scope of the issue. It’s all marketing, not real political debate. Moreover, it’s almost certain that the cuts will come from military expenditures as well as domestic programs — the public will demand it. But a Republican like McCain can’t even suggest that.

For Obama, recognition of the realities of our fiscal situation would mean curtailing the promises of new government action to solve problems, fight poverty and provide health care. The money won’t be there for new government programs, so he’d have to say that we’ll either have to raise taxes or make cuts as well. But for a Democrat, it’s important that he seem to promise a more active government, otherwise he’d lose the base of his party, something needed in November. Moreover, ever since Walter Mondale miscalculated that being honest about tax increases would be welcomed by an educated voting public, Democrats shy away from clear talk about taxes. Instead a vague promise of “cuts for the middle class” and increases “on the most wealthy” dominate the discussion. That won’t be enough to deal with the problems on the horizon.

So here we stand, before perhaps the biggest economic and political crisis of our country in the last 140 years, and our political leaders, spending billions to try to gain the office of the Presidency, refuse to even acknowledge the problem. Instead, it’s played politically, with both sides blaming the other and claiming they have the solution. It’s enough to make me want to support Paris Hilton, who at least seems to have a sensible energy policy!

Why is it that our leaders refuse to confront difficult problems. They all want to make it seem easy. But, just as the politicians like to blame others for our problems (blame OPEC, big oil, big government, the Democrats, the Republicans, etc.), it’s easy for us to simply blame the politicians. They aren’t leveling with us, they aren’t confronting the deep problems facing our country, they are fiddling as Rome burns! The blame, though, lies with us, the American people.

We’ve become fat, lazy, uneducated, and blind to the complexities of the world around us. We focus more on our entertainment and toys than on the world and its problems. In politics we get more incensed about emotional issues — abortion, flag desecration, etc. — then the complexities of world affairs and the problems facing our economy and the environment. We want a candidate with a slogan that allows us to just ignore the problems — don’t worry, be happy. And, wanting to be elected, the politicians give us what we want. They certainly know the problems are far more intense, they aren’t oblivious to the reality they refuse to acknowledge. But they also know that we don’t want to hear about it, and we’ll certainly withhold our votes if they tell us things that make us uncomfortable.

Oh, but for a candidate who would say: “Fellow Americans, I’d like to stand here and tell you that if you vote for me and my party, we have the policies to solve our problems and secure a prosperous and peaceful future. However, we face problems that defy any easy solution, and require Americans of all political stripes to work together and think creatively. These problems — oil dependency, massive government deficits, a huge trade deficit, the de-industrialization of our country, environmental problems, and a risk of fiscal and economic collapse — are the result of policies embraced by both parties. No one can simply blame the other side. Moreover, we’ve gotten so comfortable with partisan bashing – blaming the ‘evil Democrats’ or the ‘greedy Republicans,’ — that we’ve lost sight of the fact the world is too complex for simple ‘this way or that way’ solution. So I can’t promise new programs to solve our problems. I can’t promise ‘no new taxes.’ We have to keep all options on the table as we deal with this impending crisis. I can only promise to speak openly about these problems, and listen to the various options and possibilities, building compromises that allow Americans to work together to weather this storm, and set the foundation for long term peace and prosperity.”

There’s a good chance our lives will change dramatically in coming years, as economic reality forces us to cut back on all aspects of government, from social programs to military spending. It will bring about an upheaval in our political system. Perhaps, as I noted in “America and the Troglodytes,” this is rooted in a fundamental weakness in modern democracy. Americans will be shocked and angry that this was allowed to happen, and the door will be open for populists, political opportunists, and Bonapartism. It could well be that the 2008 election will be remembered for it’s surreality, candidates talking about empty issues while the country is on a collision course with disaster. We’ll blame the politicians, but they’re just giving us what we want.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on August 7, 2008 - 12:43

    Excellent post. It’s true that the two major party candidates are completely ignoring the most important issue of all.

    What’s extremely frustrating to me is that we all know the answer. The answer to spending too much is. . .surprise!. . .stop spending too much. We all understand this when it comes to our personal budget, but as you say, when people claim that they want the government to stop spending, they never want any of their favorite government expenditures cut.

    We want the government to stop spending money–but not on any of the things that it is spending the money on.

    I’m very dubious of tax hikes. The government never uses more tax revenues to cover their current spending. They use them as an excuse to spend more. In addition, they create loopholes so that their wealthy friends can get out of paying more. The tax hikes end up hurting middle class people–at least upper middle class people. They also stifle the economy, as they makes people less likely to invest.

    I know it sounds simple. If the government needs more money, just tax people more. But it never works out that way.

    I do take exception to one thing you said. Abortion is a very important issue. Yes it is an emotional issue, and that is because it is the inhumane destruction of a human life. I think human life is even more important than economic troubles.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on August 7, 2008 - 13:04

    On money: look at private debt; I’m not sure the public is being much more responsible than the government on their budgets!

    On abortion: Since there is no societal consensus (not even a consensus among Christians), I see this as a choice best left to the individual. There does seem to be a consensus that after viability outside the womb abortion is usually wrong. I suspect technology and ‘morning after’ pills will render the debate rather moot. IUDs are a form of birth control that essentially involves very early term abortions, yet most people aren’t upset about that. It’s all about drawing lines, there’s no clear consensus.

    I also see a lot of hypocrisy about abortion: people get upset about abortion, but support the death penalty and America’s recent warlike policies. I give credit to the last two Popes — John Paul II, and Benedikt XVI — for having moral consistency in opposing all three. If human life is really paramount, then one has to apply that principle in other policies as well — the last two Popes have done so.

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on August 7, 2008 - 14:23

    Scott, you’re right about private debt. It is a huge problem.

    Consensus doesn’t mean 100% agreement. Most people say that they are “personally opposed to abortion.” That sounds like consensus to me. If it’s about drawing lines, then we should draw some, but Congressional Democrats, generally, vote against every single limit to abortion, including parental consent, interstate transport, full licensing of clinics, informed consent, a ban on partial birth abortion, born-alive child protection, and every other measure that would at least give the baby, the victim, more of a chance to live.

    Well, if you think it is inconsistent to oppose abortion and support the death penalty, then you must think it is inconsistent to support aboriton and oppose the death penalty. Do you?

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on August 7, 2008 - 15:56

    My own view is that the government shouldn’t kill people, and the government should not make the moral determination on abortion absent a clear societal consensus. So my consistency is in wanting to limit the power of government over individual choices. I can’t say I ‘support abortion,’ only that I don’t feel competent to make the moral judgment of whether or not it’s a real human life at an early point (even in the IUD case), or a part of the woman that has the potential to become life if she chooses to maintain it. Those questions are really controversial, depend upon ones’ stance on unfalsifiable assumptions, and having not had to make that moral judgment myself, I’m not even sure how I would weigh those factors. After all, the logic opposing birth control is similar — in that case two life carriers, the sperm and the egg, and prevented from naturally forming life. So I don’t see this issue as clear, and thus I prefer government not make the choice.

  5. #5 by Jeff Lees on August 7, 2008 - 17:27

    I agree completely with Scott in the economic issue, it is being ignored, and it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We live in a culture of fiscal irresponsibility, and government officials are not exempt from that cultural influence.

    I have to agree with Renaissance Guy on his points though, abortion is definetely an important issue. I personally don’t support it, it is killing and innocent child, which is different from killing a criminal. I don’t think capital punishment and abortions are comparable. I support the former and not the latter. I can not believe the the supreme court recently ruled that only murderers can be executed, not child rapist and the like. There is a problem with our justice system when it take 20+ years for a serial killer to be executed and the average jail time served for a child molester is 2-3 years.

    In my opinion, I don’t want the government to kill people, but that is what they are there for. We elect a government so that when killing NEEDS to be done, it is done in a controlled manner, and a manner in which we the people deem fit. Someone HAS to defend the country and its citizens, and I know you disagree with our current “wars.” But I am talking in a more philosophical sense. There will always be violence and death, and I would much prefer the army and police keep me safe then some vigilante militia. If we didn’t give the government monopoly on the right to kill, then there is no argument against my right to kill whoever I want.

  6. #6 by Jeff Lees on August 7, 2008 - 17:29

    PS – The clock on this website is off, it says I posted my previous post at 5:27, it was actually 1:27 eastern time.

    Just wanted to let you know, I not sure if you want it that way?

  7. #7 by Scott Erb on August 7, 2008 - 19:48

    This website is global — that means I use GMT (4:00 hours later than EDT). It’s the “international time of record.”

    On capital punishment: a Christian friend who opposes abortion and capital punishment told me that the cincher for him was that errors are made by government, and he didn’t want to risk killing any innocents — to him, it was better to follow ‘thou shalt not kill’ and leave it to God to judge. I think that’s the views of Pope JP and Benedikt. I think it’s hard to separate a kind of pacifism from Christianity in any event.

    I have no problem with defense. It’s wars of offense — when we cross the world to attack countries that could not possibly invade or conquer us — that I oppose. My model for a solid defense is Switzerland. But except for the Libertarians and a few others, I’m in a distinct minority on this view. I do hold my view for primarily moral reasons.

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