Dec. 22, 2011
It is human nature to want to avoid hard choices, and to get angry with those who would compel us to make them.
In a new piece in Forbes, Bill Frezza wisely observes that the era of what he calls "both/and" is drawing to a crashing close: "The era of both/and was a magical time when the elected representatives running city, state, and national governments never had to make hard choices. To be sure, partisanship wasnt eliminated, but political compromise could always be found. This allowed incumbent politicians from both parties to deliver enough goodies to their constituents to assure themselves reelection."
Whenever a politician suggests that people be allowed to invest some of their Social Security Trust Fund money into private accounts, or that private sector solutions to health care might be preferable to federally-directed ones (which solve nothing, ultimately, except the unemployment of eager bureaucrats), or that Washingtons menagerie of departments, programs, agencies, and line items be streamlined into some form of reasonable coherence, he is vilified as heartless, a tool of big business, a mendacious and reactionary primitive.
Re-election is a politicians stock in trade. To be a statesman, one must have an ample quantity of moral courage and the wisdom to know when to act boldly. Thus, given that few politicians have the strength and insight to behave in a statesmanlike way, we can anticipate that desirable change will be at best incremental. And, despite our protestations, we want it that way.
We want governments benefits without its costs. We want its protections without its intrusions. We want its presence in our need and its exclusion in our perceived abundance. We are kidding ourselves, which is to say we are human.
As Frezza argues, we are now at the beginning of an era in which refusing to make hard choices is no longer possible:
... in bad economic times tax revenue craters, leaving massive shortfalls as government spending not only fails to decline alongside revenues, but goes up to pay for safety net expenses, which more people tap into as they are left out of work. This has happened both in California and at the federal level. Even more threatening than these oscillations is the fact that the underlying trend line in federal revenue has gone flat as federal spending entered an unprecedented period of exponential growth. To top it off, the Baby Boomer generation has started its massive wave of retirements, calling in the chits on those unfunded entitlement liabilities. And just when you thought things couldnt get any worse, GDP growth hit its deepest and broadest rut since the 1930s, where it remains mired for the foreseeable future.
We resent it when policymakers, speaking to us like adults, offer necessary and painful choices about policy priorities. Thats why we have long lived in an era of self-delusion and rewarded those who have given it to us.
We cannot abort our progeny and anticipate economic growth. We cannot experience liberty, in its fullness, if we disavow a willingness to fail. We cannot corrode the family unit through divorce, cohabitation, promiscuity, and homosexual unions and say we care about our childrens future. We cannot secularize our society without destroying the unspoken Judeo-Christian moral consensus that always has been the firm foundation of our republic.
It doesnt take a Ph.D. in economics to understand that borrowing from the future will increasingly become not just inadvisable but outright impossible. The future has arrived, and it isnt pretty, Frezza says. He is right.
Americans have long been a brave people. We like to talk about the heroic conduct of our armed forces, and well we should. But just as our men and women in uniform show courage in their sphere, can we show it in ours? It is now time for us to see if we can still summon the personal virtue and political courage without which no economy, or nation, can long endure.
This will mean hard choices. Let us steel ourselves to them, with the concurrent commitment that through the non-governmental institutions of family, church, synagogue, not-for-profit charities, professional associations and small and large corporate enterprise, we will address the needs our sagging Leviathan cannot.