On the road to Perdition
As the Washington, D.C., standoff intensified over the last week, our mainstream media once again did what they do best: They missed the main story.
Whether in print or by TV news, the focus was on when and how a deal would be cobbled together to raise the debt ceiling and avoid default on U.S. interest payments to bond holders.
Personally, I don’t believe there would have been any default since there is plenty of revenue to pay those debts first, but other government spending of money we do not have would have been in jeopardy. Even so, the brinksmanship gives investors the jitters, and in this case, something worse.
With spin from both sides, Republicans were portrayed as the uncooperative obstacle, which indeed they were. TV news conveyed the notion that a deal, whatever it contained, would be the ultimate measure of success, suggesting that we should expect harmony in our government, smooth and cooperative functioning to get things done without these embarrassing eleventh-hour skirmishes. Are they right?
Let me reveal my sentiments this way. As a sometimes recalcitrant Republican, I had many occasions to yell obscenities at TV news while George W. Bush was president, like when he promoted the creation of a new entitlement program in Medicare Part D despite the fact we did not and will not have any money to pay for it. We couldn’t even pay for the wars we were fighting, and you would have screamed if asked to do so.
I felt quite lonesome yelling at the TV in the aftermath of 9/11 when our president created a new lumbering bureaucracy named Homeland Security. I’m sure many of you would think me irrational in my yelling, but I yelled my outrage when he turned a network of airport security workers into a new federal agency so we can now pay them for the rest of their lives.
My yelling at the TV became apoplectic in the Obama administration, to the point I had to stop watching and stick to the newspaper lest my heart or head detonate, because he raised the stakes by exploding the size of government with runaway spending that has now reached the stratosphere, doubling since Bush, with a deep ocean of red ink as far as the eye can see.
Since President Obama has proven to be an astonishing spender, and since he would spend more and raise taxes if Republicans would get out of the way, maybe it’s a good thing that he couldn’t lead a group of little old ladies through a pansy patch without serious consequences.
As the debt ceiling doomsday clock counted down to national default, he tweeted his finger-pointing from the sidelines, used a national address to do little more than criticize Republicans, and all the while never put forward a plan. Some leadership.
But that still isn’t the real story.
At this writing Sunday evening there is only agreement on a framework of a plan that trims $2.4 trillion of spending over 10 years while raising the debt ceiling an equivalent amount, triggers some automatic cuts this year if Congress does not act, adds a conditional vote on a balanced budget amendment and requires unspecified tax reforms. Much of the mud-wrestling would be yet to come, but the risk to the debt ceiling would be removed.
If this plan is enacted, I predict the Republicans will mislead you by celebrating their victory. After all, the President months ago demanded a “clean” increase in the debt ceiling, meaning without any conditions that required spending cuts, but Republicans refused to budge without the spending cuts that are part of the plan.
The President countered with tax increases, nicely disguised as “revenue,” but the tax increases the President wanted are gone from the plan. Nevertheless, watch for some spending cuts to morph first into “deficit reductions” and then become tax increases as part of the “tax reforms” called for in the plan. Call me a cynic.
Republicans will boast of their accomplishment, and it is true they did slow down the spending binge a little bit. In the grand scheme of things, though, these spending cuts are just tinkering at the edges; the spending cuts don’t go far enough to make much real difference.
Democrats will surely use their buddies in the mainstream media to successfully portray the Republicans as the bad guys, anyway, never mind the facts. But who is the real loser here?
That would be you. Well, at least those of you who pay taxes, federal income taxes for those who want to quibble. And therein lies the real story.
What if the $2.4 trillion were real, honest, spending cuts over the next decade, and not the gimmicks and accounting smoke and mirrors we have come to expect from Washington?
Even if those spending cuts are legitimate, the real story is in that same time period we will borrow $7 trillion more to add to our debt, with no plan even dreamed of to repay the debt we already owe. The real story is 43 cents of every dollar our federal government spends is borrowed from our children, a moral betrayal of the next generation, an egregiously irresponsible abdication of our duty to keep our nation strong.
The real story is only half of us pay the taxes that fund our government, while those along for the ride are one of our only remaining growth sectors.
How bad does the story have to get, I wonder, before reporters finally catch on that we are galloping down the road to Perdition? The debt ceiling deal, the $2.4 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade, merely slows down our gallop, but we are still plunging ahead toward Perdition, not even yet slowed to a fast trot.
I am confident TV news will deliver a host of talking heads this week glowing in relief that a deal finally was cobbled together, because that’s the main thing, isn’t it, that our politicians just get along and compromise, split the difference, make a deal before the deadline? They seem to believe the fighting is the real problem.
I wonder if there is any principle the talking heads would stand and fight for themselves, or whether it is always resolution they would value, no matter which side prevails?
I don’t know. But I do know their tension will be relieved by this deal and their attention will move to another story, while our collective feet continue pounding the road to Perdition, still headed relentlessly toward our national demise.
I fear the rest of the world has finally realized the depth of our national dysfunction, our complete inability to plan rationally. International investors are likely now awakened to the fact we are a house irrevocably divided, most focused on fighting each other with little chance of sensible financial decisions.
Surely they now realize that while headed pell-mell toward Perdition, half of us want our government to spend even more money that we don’t have and thereby turn up the throttle in our speed toward doomsday.
Investors don’t want us going to Perdition at any speed. They want reliability, stability and to keep uncertainty from ever rearing its ugly head.
That’s why I doubt avoiding official default will matter too much. We cannot un-ring the bell. The financial condition of the United States is now widely known to be somewhere in the range of miserable, and the best we have been able to do is slightly slow the pace of making it even more miserable, akin to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
The news often portrayed this fight as an unnecessary squabble that risked the AAA rating of U.S. government securities, with default narrowly averted.
Call me a contrarian, but I believe the damage is done, that international investors are now wise to our inexorable march on the road to Perdition, even while so many of us doing the marching refuse to see where we are going.
[Terry Garlock of Peachtree City contributes a column occasionally to The Citizen. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.]