M.D. Harmon: Scary times, Obama's debt and America's "horrific bender"

Cartoon.Real threat to economy
Cartoon courtesy of NetRightDaily

Conan O’Brien said last week that the mayor of Washington, D.C., had asked the owner of the Washington Redskins football team to change the team’s name because it was offensive. Well, the owner has agreed, and the team will now be called the Maryland Redskins.

So, letting that joke stand for continuing poll results showing people’s general disdain for Washington, let’s look at some state and national issues.

In addition to my own thoughts, I want to express my debt to a few commentators on present-day events, including, among others, Yuval Levin, Hertog fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs; Victor Davis Hansen, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and eminent scholar of the ways of war and peace in ancient Greece; Glenn Harlan Reynolds, law professor at the University of Tennessee; and Laura Hollis, associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.

If I were to describe what I consider the chief practical—not political or directly ideological—difference between our two major parties, it is this: Republicans run for office to pursue a range of relatively broad policies. Democrats run for office to win. This is not to say Democrats don’t have principles or policies; they most certainly do have well-defined sets of both. But without the ability to implement them, Democrats understand that policies and principles mean little when the government’s powerful rubber hits the taxpayer-financed road. Thus, they pick people they think can win. Republicans pick John McCain and Mitt Romney.

THUS THE DEMOCRATS regained control of the Legislature with relative ease, even as a Democrat in King’s clothing slipped equally easily into a former Republican seat.

(As an aside, one of the more amusing headlines I read in the Portland Press Herald last month went something like, “Mystery solved! Angus King to caucus with Democrats.” I cannot imagine anyone who has not spent the last three decades in a cave in Aroostook County to whom that could possibly have been a “mystery” of any sort.)

Be that as it may, Augusta’s Democrats are already campaigning to eliminate the long-delayed tax cuts the former GOP majority had created for the hard-working taxpayers of Maine. As the former Democratic leader of the House told a Press Herald editorial board meeting in 2011, “My caucus hates those tax cuts.” And she didn’t say it just once, she said it four times.

So when the voters of Maine, in their sovereign wisdom, restored the Legislature to Democratic hands, they also put those tax cuts in peril. And those who buy the argument that they were just “tax cuts for the rich” probably remember congressional Democrats demagoguing the Bush tax cuts with that phrase—until it came time to make them permanent. Then Democrats voted to retain them all except for the top 2 percent of taxpayers. It’s an odd set of tax cuts for the rich where 98 percent of taxpayers can still benefit from them, isn’t it?

And the same is true for Maine. The GOP in Augusta dropped 70,000 Mainers off the tax rolls entirely, and cut taxes proportionately for the rest.

If you want a progressive tax system, then a equal tax cut is also progressive. My view is that a flat tax system with very few exemptions would be the fairest of all. But the politics of envy, at least at present, makes that appear unlikely. Things do change, though, so we’ll see. Perhaps another two years of Democratic legislating in Augusta will remind voters why they put Republicans in power two years ago.

At the national level, we currently borrow $4 out of every $10 the government spends. The national debt—not the annual deficit, but the total debt—has expanded from about $10 trillion when President Obama first took office to more than $16.4 trillion now, headed toward more than $20 trillion by the end of the decade. And that does not count the more than $100 trillion in unfunded liabilities for entitlement programs we are obligated to spend in the next 75 years. There is a reason columnist Mark Steyn calls us “the brokest nation in history.”

ECONOMIST ROBERT J. SAMUELSON noted recently that in 2011, “payments for individuals,” including health care, constituted 65 percent of federal spending, up from 21 percent in 1955. In 2010, a fifth of food stamp recipients had incomes exceeding twice the federal poverty line (about $45,000 for a family of four). “That’s the welfare state,” he says, and it puts pressure on every other dollar the government spends for defense, research, highways and airports, national parks, etc. It also undermines work incentives and devalues the moral standing of earning one’s own success.

Samuelson concludes, “The welfare state’s great contradiction—the reason its politics are so messy—is that what seems good for the individual is not, when multiplied by thousands or millions of cases, always good for society. The need is not to dismantle the welfare state but to modernize it gradually, preserving its virtues while minimizing its vices in a slow process that does not derail the recovery.”

That is, it is perfectly appropriate to use government to meets people’s genuine needs when they cannot do so by themselves, but we continue to exhibit considerable confusion over what is a garden-variety want and what is a genuine need, and  just because government has provided something in the past does not make it a genuine need.

WHAT WILL IT TAKE to resolve this? Yuval Levin, in an article entitled “Small Ball” in last week’s Weekly Standard, showed considerable insight in noting why a “fiscal compromise” has not materialized in Congress.

As Levin puts it, “The outlines of a grand bargain seem so obvious. The Democrats want to raise revenue and the Republicans want to reform entitlements. Those goals would seem to be easily reconciled.” And yet nothing is done, leading some observers, Levin notes, to call our system irrational and dysfunctional.

Yet such critiques ignore the real obstacles to compromise, which is that the steps that would resolve the issue violate one or the other party’s deepest philosophical traditions and goals.

Our current entitlements, primarily Medicare and Medicaid, are limiting the prosperity of coming generations and running the risk of a sudden and disastrous crisis.

Both parties’ responses, Levin says, are fundamentally defensive in nature. The left is trying to avoid a fundamental transformation of the structure of our entitlement programs, since liberals believe the structure of these programs is key to sustaining a just society.

The right is trying to avoid a fundamental transformation of the relationship of government and society in America, since conservatives believe the structure of that relationship is essential to American freedom and prosperity. The left would rather see society restructured than have these welfare-state systems reformed. The right would rather see the programs become means-tested and market-based than see the character of our society altered to lessen individual power, freedom and responsibility.

Since the differences are basic, Levin says, there is little room for a middle road that would meet the goals of both sides simultaneously. Ergo, as long as government is divided politically, it will remain divided on fiscal issues, too, and the only changes possible for the next two years (at least) are incremental—hence his “Small Ball” title.

PROFESSOR GLENN REYNOLDS, meanwhile, just published a column in USA Today in which he noted, “Obama Owns the Debt Now.” It is subtitled, “The debt is up about 60 percent since Obama took office. This can’t go on forever.” Since we are spending far more than we take in and borrowing the difference—more than $1 trillion a year since 2009—we need to control spending to let the economy grow.

And Reynolds directly addresses Obama’s contention that the deficits are somehow George Bush’s fault, noting that despite spending on Mideast conflicts, the gap between income and spending was closing in 2005 and 2006, becoming very narrow—until the accession of a Democratic Congress in 2007, when they grew apart again—a full year before the 2008 recession began.

True, Reynolds notes, a lot of those bills got GOP votes. But from 2009 on, the bills landed on Obama’s desk, and he signed them. To say someone else forced him to is to say he really wasn’t an independent, effective leader.

AS VICTOR DAVIS HANSEN put it in a Jan. 2 column entitled, “Welcome to Very, Very Scary Times,” these “should not be foreboding years. We have tons of newly available energy resources; our economic rivals are in demographic declines, both shrinking and aging; our food supplies are plentiful and cheap in comparison to the rest of the world; our military is still the world’s most powerful; our very poor have more resources and consumer goods than most nations’ middle classes; and we still attract immigrants instead of seeing our people flee elsewhere for opportunity.”

Nevertheless, Hanson says “these are the most foreboding times in my 59 years. The reelection of Barack Obama has released a surge of rare honesty among the left about its intentions, coupled with a sense of triumphalism that the country is now on board for still greater redistributionist change.”

We face the consequences of a newly empowered progressive elite which, long convinced of its superiority over less-enlightened Americans, has finally come to the point where it thinks it has the power to put its morally superior views into effect over any potential obstacles or objections.

Thus we have assaults on First Amendment civil liberties under Obamacare and Second Amendment civil liberties coming today from the commission headed by Vice President Biden. We have assaults on Fifth Amendment civil liberties by Obama’s assertion he can kill American citizens with drones. We have seen his own Justice Department break U.S. gun laws and cause the deaths of hundreds of people under Operation Fast and Furious, with the people in charge escaping responsibility or accountability. We have seen banks and brokerage firms supported as “too big to fail,” which then become major contributors to the administration.

We have seen political favorites get loans of hundreds of millions for “green industries” that failed, with taxpayers bearing the losses—as they bore the losses suffered when General Motors was protected from bankruptcy to the benefit of its owners and unions and the detriment of its investors and bondholders, whose rights under existing law were ignored by the administration. We have seen huge tracts of public land with rich resource deposits be arbitrarily placed off limits for development.

And all this may be just the beginning, especially if changes can be made on the Supreme Court.

FINALLY, LET ME add a word about our culture.

As Notre Dame law professor Laura Hollis recently wrote, “We do not hold the values we do because they garner votes. We hold the values we do because we believe that they are time-tested principles without which a civilized, free and prosperous society is not possible.
“We defend the unborn because we understand that a society which views some lives as expendable is capable of viewing all lives as expendable.

“We defend family—mothers, fathers, marriage, children—because history makes it quite clear that societies without intact families quickly descend into anarchy and barbarism, and we have plenty of proof of that in our inner cities, where marriage is infrequent and unwed motherhood approaches 80 percent. (The overall rate is 40 percent.)

“When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, many thought that the abortion cause was lost. Forty years later, ultrasound technology has demonstrated the inevitable connection between science and morality.” (Indeed, the widespread availability of ultrasound was cited by Time Magazine last week as the principal reason why more people today call themselves “pro-life” than ever before.)

She continues, “America is on a horrific bender, and has been for some time now. The warning signs of our fiscal profligacy and our culture of a lack of personal responsibility are everywhere—too many to mention. We need only look
at other countries which have gone the route we are walking now to see what is in store.”

Still, she fears that many Americans “will not see what is coming until the whole thing collapses. That is what makes me so sad today. I see the country I love headed toward its own ‘rock bottom,’ and I cannot seem to reach those who are taking it there.”

Apparently, no one can. Still, I take comfort in a comment attributed to economist Herb Stein, that if something can’t continue, it will stop. However, unless something changes, we will apparently spend money we don’t have until we can no longer do it. Then we will stop, but no one will like the way it will happen.

Reality, however, will not care.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:mdharmoncol@yahoo.com.



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