Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Kind of America Do You Want? (Pt. 1)

So, the Debt Crisis is over.

At least until next year.

In this intensely divided political environment, what everyone seems to agree on is that this is a terrible deal. It raises the debt ceiling, which was necessary, but in exchange, we get less than a trillion dollars in cuts over the next decade. (Our national budget is $3.7 trillion a year.) No new taxes, even on those who could well afford them, and no cuts to our biggest entitlement programs.

Under the deal, a special special committee will be set up to recommend a whole 'nother $1.2 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving. Their recommendation will have the rare advantage of an undelayed, unamended up-or-down vote. Hopefully their recommendations will be good and hopefully the vote will be "up." But even then, we'll have no permanent solution to our debt problem, and our economy will still be languishing. And probably, their recommendations will only lead to another fight, this one in an election year.

So...there you go.

I'm not interested in assigning blame. We're in the mess we're in not because the Tea Party is crazy (though you could make that argument) or because Obama is a bad negotiator and too-righteous in his own eyes (and he is). Both sides are responsible. Both sides set down "red lines" that were incompatible with each other. Both sides thought they could not compromise without betraying their core principles, and both sides were right. We're in this mess because our country has overextended itself.

This country has made more promises than it can keep. The time is coming when we will have to break some of those promises. We haven't reached that point yet, but this crisis makes it clear that we are reaching it. We cannot be a country that provides quality education to all its children AND maintains a global network of military bases AND gives free healthcare to all its poor and elderly AND subsidizes health insurance for everyone else AND periodically bombs and occupies rogue states AND gives old people paychecks for being old AND is an industrial power AND is environmentally friendly AND is a free market low-tax paradise AND is a place where everyone owns their own home AND has a military budget equal to the military budgets of the next twelve countries after us combined AND that is "the last best hope of mankind" whatever the heck that means.

No doubt we would like to be all those things, because no presidential candidate that hasn't at least paid lip service to all those things has even come close to winning in decades. But we cannot. It is a pipe dream, and we are exhausting ourselves trying to accomplish it. The Tea Party may be misdirected and misinformed (and really, really annoying) but its enduring power and appeal testify to this fact. This country is not headed in the right direction; it's headed in three or more different directions, and it's starting to tear us apart.

American antiwar activists love to show pictures like this one:

"Whoa, look man, more than half our budget goes to the military, that's so whacked-out and here we don't even have government-provided daycare in this country..."

FALSE. If anyone ever says something like that to you, or shows you a pie chart like the one taped to that van, visit upon them a scowl of withering contempt, and then explain the following:

That pie chart shows DISCRETIONARY spending - or, money that is spent at the discretion of the current president and congress. But more than half of federal spending is MANDATORY - that is, the government is required to spend it by law. This includes Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid - both of which carry price tags higher than our defense spending (impressive as it is.) A more honest pie chart would look like this:

Over 37% of that circle is money we don't have.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel conquered territory three times the size of its own, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol asked President Lyndon Johnson for continued military support. Johnson responded by asking, "What kind of Israel [will] expected to support...What kind of Israel do you want?" (Gershom Gorenberg, The Accidental Empire, p. 127 - yes, I cite this book a lot. It's awesome, that's why.) This is the question America faces today: What kind of America do we want? The empire, the farmer-governed republic, the social welfare state? There are precedents for all of these in our national narrative, but we cannot be all of them at once. Not anymore.

So...where should we start?

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