March 10, 2010

COMMENTARYGot $16 trillion 'n' whadda ya get, 'nother day older 'n' deeper in debt

— The good folks from the ''Fiscal Wake-up Tour'' sponsored by the Concord Coalition showed up in our offices this week just prior to offering a presentation in Kennebunkport on the national debt.

They gave an evaluation of government overspending that was so dire that I accused them of jumping out of closets and yelling ''Boo!'' just to watch their victims' hair stand on end, their faces turn white and some of them faint dead away.

Which, come to think of it, probably is the rational reaction to the recent announcement by the Obama administration that the national debt will itself jump from a projected $7 trillion more than it is now to more than $9 trillion over today's $7.4 trillion level.

OK, my hair's on end, my face is white, and I'm feeling more than a bit woozy. Mission accomplished, folks.

Remember, a deficit is how much a given budget falls short of being fully funded; the national debt is the total amount owed by the government as the cumulative amount of debt over all previous budgetary periods.

And the bad news is that the $16 trillion-plus we're headed for in 2020 doesn't include the shortfalls that may well have hit both Medicare and Social Security by that time.

The total ''unfunded liability'' of the federal government, using those measures, is more than triple the recently announced figure when you project out to the life-span of a person now entering the workforce.

Excuse me, I'm feeling dizzier, so I guess I'll sit down for a bit. OK, better now.

You hear a lot of squealing and squeaking about how ''this is all George W. Bush's fault,' and some of it is, to be sure.

Still, while he consented to deficit spending to finance a war, he tried his hardest to persuade people to put Social Security on a sounder footing, and was roundly ignored.

Yes, there were substantial domestic programs he should have vetoed, and I and many others urged him to do it. We were ignored, too.

Now, however, it's not Bush who wants to give the economy a $1 trillion hit with a cap-and-trade system, or another $1 trillion sock in the jaw with a government-run health insurance scheme. Instead, it's the guy in the Oval Office now, who ran for the job promising to restore fiscal responsibility and not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000.

Darn, the room's starting to spin again. Some water, please? Ah, thanks.

What are the Wake-up Tour folks, who come from a variety of think tanks ranging from the left to the right (but no wingers) really trying to do beyond scaring us?

Here's how ambitious they are: They want our politicians to tell us the truth!

No, really. They see a current political atmosphere in which our elected representatives promise impossible things because they believe that we won't listen if they tell us we can't (for example) get lower taxes and more benefits at the same time.

Or, that we want to hear that we can expand health care by adding 47 million uninsured people to the rolls and save money doing it. Indeed, we are told that is exactly how we can help balance the budget, of all things. Politicos figure that telling us these risible fantasies is the only thing that keeps getting them re-elected.

What the Tour folks want to do is make it possible for officials to tell us that we can't have everything we want and not end up being carried out on a stretcher afterward.

Yes, that means our Tour guides are more than optimistic, but I see some signs of hope myself.

That is, I'm not anywhere near as upset about the rowdiness and raucous behavior at some town hall meetings as many of my media compatriots.

While the leftist punditry's furrowing its brows and viewing populist uproar with alarm, I figure that people who run for public office earn enough money that they should be able to take a bit of shouting now and again when they start believing their press releases.

I figure the town hall foofaraw's a healthy sign that the citizenry's finally beginning to pay attention to what's going on in D.C., and if the prospect of indentured servitude to the Chinese some years down the road disturbs them, then they have a right to be disturbed.

The people who say it's just a few loose cannons showing up to pop off in public (they also say it's an organized campaign, as if the GOP could organize anything bigger than a cupcake bake-off) are ignoring a cloud on the horizon that is now far bigger than a man's hand.

To wit, the polls.

Dear Leader's ratings have dropped 20 points since he was elected, and that's just his overall approval rating. His ability to fix specific items like health care and the economy is now rated even lower.

Are those ratings doomed to stay there? No, as I've said before, Obama has plenty of time to pull things out. But the grade on how he's tried to do it so far is pretty much settled, and it's not summa cum laude level, either.

It's beginning to look like Americans voted for him to restore some comity and level-headedness to government, not to implement a full-court press from the Karl Marx Playbook as annotated by Otto von Bismarck. When you look under ''overweening ambition'' in a future dictionary, you're going to see a famous visage smiling right back at you.

Unless things change. He can still back down, he can still compromise, he can still try to be sensible and responsible and grown-up and all the things Americans quaintly want in their leaders. At least, I hope he can. If he can't, we are in for it in a very big way.

Smelling salts, anyone?

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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