Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A National Conversation about Debt

With the European project flushing down the toilet, I think it is time for a national conversation about debt.

This is hard, and you know why.  It is hard because of a trait that our liberal friends share with Harvard men.  You can always tell a liberal, but you can't tell her anything.  Liberalism is a religious cult, rather like Harvard.  It is a closed system, and is almost impervious to persuasion.

My point is this.  I can understand having a debt crisis when the nation's existence is at stake, when we have to strip the nation of assets in order to feed its armies fighting against the Nazis or the Commies.  But should we really be facing a debt meltdown over paying grannie's Medicare?

Everyone wants to make grannie's golden years a comfort to her.  But what happens when grannie's Medicare/Medicaid takes 12 percent of GDP?

It seems to be a good idea to mortgage the whole nation if an earthquake had leveled San Francisco.  That is what government is for, to rally us all after a crisis, and help pay for the trillion dollars needed to rebuild.  But should we bankrupt the nation on multigenerational welfare?

The great advantage of keeping the national debt down to about 10 to 15 percent of GDP is that it means that the nation is ready to assume any extraordinary burden that comes along, whether it is a war to defend democracy or a natural disaster.  When it is up at 100 percent like it is now, then the nation is not ready to assume extraordinary burdens.  It already has enough burden shouldering today's debt.

Don't get me wrong.  I think that pensions are a great idea.  Health care is a wonder.  But people value these things enough to do them without the government.  Of course, after 70 years of Social Security and 40 years of Medicare many Americans can't imagine life without them.  But we'd find a way if the government went broke.  In fact, I'll bet my nickel that the aftermath of a government default would see wonders of invention: oldsters like me figuring out how to make a buck, physicians figuring out how to deliver health care to people that had to pay for health care with their own money.

And there is the societal aspect to consider.  Most ordinary people derive their most satisfaction in meeting the routine challenges of life.  In today's welfare state only the educated elite gets to meet challenges.  Everyone else just sits around telling victim stories and waiting for the handout.  No wonder we learn that, e.g., young people are curiously diffident these days.   Nobody is challenging them.

Of course, there is a bigger problem with the welfare state than just debt.  It is the demographic problem, that welfare state people don't get married and don't have children, as in Germany and Italy, and Spain.  Here in America conservatives have about 50 percent more children than liberals.  That is an existential disaster that, so far, is not suitable for polite conversation and a national conversation.

So when we look at the national government budget for 2011, courtesy of usgovernmentspending,com:

Government Pensions $1.0 trillion
Government Health Care $1.1 trillion
Government Education $0.9 trillion
National Defense $0.9 trillion
Government Welfare $0.6 trillion
All Other Spending $1.6 trillion
Total Government Spending $6.0 trillion

You have to ask: Wouldn't most of this stuff be done better if the American people did it themselves?  We wouldn't do it alone, of course, but in revived voluntary collective associations, first reported by Tocqueville to the world in the 1830s.

And in that national conversation about this, let us ask a difficult question, appropriate for national conversations.  Is America ready to discuss the fact that it's all welfare, all $3.6 trillion of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and on and on?

Imagine an America in which all these functions were being done in a vigorous, can-do American spirit.  Bureaucrats need not apply.

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