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uncle_sam_broke“We should be grateful we don’t get all the government we pay for” someone remarked to me at a local Republican strategy conference earlier this year. The hard coastal rain combined with the flat tire on my rental car awaiting me in the parking lot had dampened my spirits, so I didn’t have the energy to reply.

A couple months prior, a local Democrat state legislator said “that’s ridiculous” when I mentioned the country’s $60 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities for Medicare, Social Security, and government pensions. She really had no clue. 

The disconnect from reality is on both sides of the aisle, and it’s profound. The great danger in my profession is to assume that the average citizen knows and understands the issues that we policy folk take for granted, and it’s an assumption that appears in small ways—like reading a story from the morning newspaper and knowing how to read between the lines of the reporting or knowing the back-story, and without even thinking about it, believing that the typical newspaper reader digested the story in the same way and came to the same conclusions.

From my perch atop one of the numerous state-based public policy think tanks that dot the political landscape, the view is increasingly grim. The growing realization that neither political party is truly capable of dealing with the U.S.’s fiscal cancer has been the major impetus in my drift from the “Republican” to “None of the above” category (when I grudgingly joined Facebook I listed my political views as “probably not yours.” It’s vague enough to describe my frustration with the whole sad game right now, and being a Hillsdale grad on the Left Coast, it seems to fit).

As the culture deteriorates, the discussion increasingly focuses on policy. Left and Right obsess with recommendations, plans, agendas, reforms, platforms, talking points, strategies, and all of it ad nauseam. Politics is in permanent campaign mode so actual governing rarely occurs. This is only slightly less true at the state level.

Many civic-minded folks are, I suspect, lulled into a false sense of security at the state level because most states (including my own) require balanced budgets, so general operations can’t be funded by borrowing. But general operating budgets are only a fraction of state spending. Health care entitlements, transportation, and education programs come with lavish federal infusions, which are growing thanks to foreign creditors and auto-pilot policy decisions. The time is not far off when state policy making, once an integral aspect of a vibrant federalist system, is little more than a conduit for federal funds.

Government debt is a cancer that metastasizes throughout the body politic, and so the federal addiction to debt impacts states in a big way, especially in an era when state legislatures use federal “bailout” money to maintain spending levels that their own revenue streams can’t support. I have grown so very tired of hearing my own governor tell reporters “you know, we can’t print or borrow money” as she tries to justify this or that policy decision. It’s true our state can’t, but it does rely on vast amounts of money from an entity that both prints and borrows astronomical sums.

A couple years back I met a wonk’s wonk, the Hon. David M. Walker. Walker had recently stepped down as Comptroller General of the U.S. and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It’s not a sexy, high-profile position. Its work is, in a sense, the stuff yawns are made of.  You could say the GAO counts the beans of the bean counters.

President Clinton appointed Walker to run the GAO in 1998. Stepping down, he claimed, would give him the leeway to bring more attention to the U.S.’s growing debt load. Serving as Comptroller General gave Walker a unique insight into the nation’s finances, and what he saw over the years troubled him deeply. That Congress continued to ignore the problem troubled him even more.

Someone once said economists are like accountants but without all the personality. Walker comes across as both at times. Not a charismatic speaker by any means, he does speak with an authority that focuses your attention on the sobering reality he communicates. He comes across as an impeccably honest, no-nonsense man—the sort you meet and think to yourself “I’ll bet his yard is kept absolutely flawless.”

After Walker left the GAO, he signed on with the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (oh the great names that the non-profit world churns out) as President and CEO. He now serves as its senior advisor. The Foundation has taken a leadership role in promoting greater public awareness of the long-term financial challenges plaguing the nation.

Accountants and lawyers love using complicated terms for simple concepts. I’m convinced it is they, rather than the Masons or Illuminati, who conspire to re-make society. Every quarter my organization’s bookkeeper gives me a print-out detailing how much I’ve spent from my annual budget at that point, and it’s filled with more jargon than an IRS form. When I finally do discover how much I’ve spent that year, I’m quick to mark it with a highlighter so I don’t have to go through the gymnastics again.  So when I started flipping through the pages of “The State of the Union’s Finances,” an annual report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, I was not surprised to find more fun terms there.  My favorite was “Major Fiscal Exposures.” Translated, that’s “a measure (in present value) of federal liabilities, commitments, contingencies, and unfunded promises, which, under current law, will cost the government at a future date.” I’ve read more white papers than I care to admit, but this report struck me immediately.

As I write, in October 2010, the total value of all debt and unfunded promises made by the U.S. government is $61.9 trillion over the next 75 years. $45.8 trillion of that belongs solely to promised Social Security and Medicare benefits. The rest is comprised of publicly-held debt, military and civilian employee pension payments and retiree health benefits, and government guarantees of private pension plans.  Each American’s piece of that lovely cake is more than $200,000.

Yeah, that’s bad. And it’s not getting any better. The current national debt $13 trillion, nearly half of which is owned by foreign creditors. In 2008 50% of the federal budget was spent on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and net interest. Under current conditions, by 2050 the federal debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product will be 350%.

The second time I heard David Walker speak, I approached him afterwards and asked if he was working on ways to make the implications of the nation’s debt real to the everyday citizen who tends to be more concerned with checking out the latest iPhone app or watching one of the dozen ESPN channels than he does the nation’s finances. I’ve been messaging public policy long enough to know that you can’t make it stick in people’s minds unless you make it real to them, somehow.

I suggested to Walker he needed to make the problem real for people by painting a picture of what specifically will happen in their lives if the debt problem continues unchecked. He didn’t seem too interested. Maybe because he doesn’t know what will really happen. In graduate school they told us historians make terrible prophets.  Perhaps accountants and economists are even lousier at predicting the future. But Walker, like many in my industry, has faith in the notion that people will make the right decisions if properly educated.

Ultimately, Walker’s message doesn’t resonate with people on a broad scale (at least not broad enough to translate into political action) because it just doesn’t register with them. The nation’s debt is a far-off, distant problem that doesn’t really impact *me* in the here and now, so why should I be concerned? As long as the entertainment-industrial complex keeps cranking out episodes of Lost and American Idol, life is good.

“We should avoid ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden we ourselves ought to bear” is a George Washington quote Walker utters frequently. The wisdom of a generation that knew too well the dangers of Leviathan government is lost on most people today.

Richard A. Posner, in a recent Foreign Policy article, made a rather unsettling observation:

The adjustments that will be needed—if the economy does not outgrow an increasing burden of debt—to maintain the U.S. economic position in the world may be especially painful and difficult because of features of the American political scene that suggest that the country might be becoming in important respects ungovernable. The perfection of interest-group politics has brought about a situation in which, to exaggerate just a bit, taxes can’t be increased, spending programs can’t be cut, and new spending is irresistible.

It was the word “ungovernable” that struck me most. It reminded me of an equally disturbing headline I saw floating around the news world a few months ago: “Is California the First Failed State?” (linked here to NPR but seen many places elsewhere).

“Ungovernable”? “Failed state”? These are terms we hear associated with countries in Latin America, Africa, or the sub-equatorial Far East. It can’t happen here in America. Or can it? We get all the government we pay for, and more. We are saddled with all the government we can borrow. But at some point the lending will stop, or will come at a price we cannot afford to pay, and the consequences in our lives will be severe. Until David Walker et al. strive to make this notion real in people’s lives, their warnings will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Regrettably, a technocratic myopia pervades the “idea factories” to which many on the Right turn for solutions to our nation’s woes. In those endless rows of well-lit cubicles, offices, and conference rooms, the answers are always simple: If we change this law, re-jigger this provision of that program, or create some new statutory “safeguard,” we’ll fix the problem. But the solutions aren’t so simple. It is the culture that must change, which means it is individual people who must change. It can be spurred by strong, virtuous leadership, but it can’t be legislated from the throne.

“Is it conceivable,” Russell Kirk asked, “that American civilization, and in general what we call ‘Western Civilization,’ may recover from the Time of Troubles…and in the twenty-first century enter upon an Augustan age of peace and restored order?” The question was weighty enough to give him pause when he posed it in 1992.  How much farther have we slipped into darkness 20 years later? Yet we cannot believe that anything is inevitable, least of all our downfall. But even as he raises the question, Kirk joins Edmund Burke in reminding us that history is replete with turning points, many of which came under the least likely of circumstances.

And so, as grim as the course of events may seem, there is hope. There is always hope.

Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Communication work hardly counts as a real profession, but let that not detract from this fine piece from Mr. Barnes, thought-provoking on many levels.

    In my own similar work, in states more advanced in their failure than America thus far, I try to explain to government clients that they (we) are weird for this interest in policy, shared by no normal people anywhere. Normal people are interested in the beach, not the bus that takes us there. Yet policy wonks, paid to peddle policy, never stop talking about the bus long enough to mention the beach. President Reagan always spoke of the beach and rarely of the shape or colour of bus other than that we needed one. Imagine, 40 years in the desert without television, what would have become of the Jews had Moses not bothered, night after night, to talk about the Promised Land? We must explain to people where we wish to go before they can understand if we are on the wrong path, but this is made harder in a Screwtapian world where history is scorned or even reviled. So, Mr. Barnes could not be more correct when it comes to the ineffectiveness of policy-blather, sometimes used intentionally to numb or hoodwink audiences.

    He also raises the bigger question of who wants to go to the beach? In other words, have Americans become so corrupted by socialism and feelings of false entitlement that most now believe they are owed something for nothing? Are the sanctity of work and the will to prudence and freedom from debt virtues still for most Americans? I have not lived there recently enough to say. But my grandfathers always paid cash for their motorcars (generally old and well-used ones), while many of their modern progeny are in hock up to their gills. Who among the old, I wonder, has not taken more out of the system than he put in, at least in terms of Social Security and Medicare payments? The growth of the state and its spendthrift ways have worked insidiously and not only upon the indolent poor.

    Perhaps enough moral rootstock still survives invisible beneath the grass, ready to throw up shoots again. It seems to be happening in England, where most people appear to have resigned themselves to retiring debt and living with the smaller government that results. That may even just survive the coming onslaught of public-funded carrion-eaters and the media ghouls who feed upon the political scraps left over. But in the meantime, before we learn if Dr. Kirk's optimism was well placed, we will confront Kipling's Gods of the Copybook Headings (one of Kirk's favourite apocalyptic poems) in which the old bromides used for teaching penmanship are consistently ignored and…

    "As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
    There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
    That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
    And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

    And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
    When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
    As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
    The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!"

    Stephen Masty

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Stephen.

    I'll let the "Communication work hardly counts as a real profession" remark slide since I haven't had a cup of coffee yet this morning and thus don't have the energy to challenge you on that.

  3. "But the solutions aren't so simple. It is the culture that must change, which means it is individual people who must change. It can be spurred by strong, virtuous leadership, but it can't be legislated from the throne."

    Absolutely true. Back when modern conservatism was birthed in the 1950s, the default position, maybe more assumed than stated, for conservatives became that politics and policy drive the health of American society. Thus the obsession on the right with politics and public policy.

    I would argue that as important as these are, professions of cultural influence, such as education and academia, Hollywood and entertainment, journalism and media are much more the drivers of the direction of our society. These professions have become dominated by leftists and leftist thinking because conservatives basically ignored them.

    There are pockets on the right of some focus on the cultural influence professions, but many of these are driven by politics as well. As long as these professions remain dominated by the left, the more America will continue to drift away from its Founding values and the Judeo-Christian worldview that undergirds them.

  4. I'm hanging my hat on hope ~ hope in Christ on whose shoulders rests government and peace that never ends. He changes people.

    That's an historical fact to which the illustrious Robert E Lee refers when he reminds us ~

    My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them, nor
    indisposed me to serve them; nor, in spite of failures, which I lament, of
    errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or, of the present state of affairs, do
    I despair of the future.

    The march of providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work
    of progress is so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life
    of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see
    only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged.

    It is history that teaches us to hope.

    This passage is from the writings of Robert E Lee, first made public by Colonel Charles Marshall in 1887, in Southern Historical Papers published in 1889, and used as an example in Richard Weaver's essay on the Christian warrior, found in The Southern Tradition at Bay, pg 209.

    Enjoying the discussion, guys!

    Dana
    Hillsdale '78

  5. John and Mike, forgive the nit-picking amid your superb thoughts. A lady friend recently wrote that she was working in Scotland to improve the 'profession of salesmen.' I asked if salesmen constitute a profession, then what in the world is a trade? And if trades and professions are the same thing then we have just lost two good words. Wikipedia, that vast repository of supposed knowledge, reports:

    "A profession is a vocation founded upon specialised educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. Classically, there were only three professions: Divinity, Medicine, and Law. The main milestones which mark an occupation being identified as a profession are:

    It became a full-time occupation;
    The first training school was established;
    The first university school was established;
    The first local association was established;
    The first national association was established;
    The codes of professional ethics were introduced;
    State licensing laws were established.
    The ranking of established professions in the United States based on the above milestones shows Surveying first (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln were all land surveyors before entering politics), followed by Medicine, actuarial science, Law, Dentistry, Civil Engineering, Logistics, Architecture and Accounting. With the rise of technology and occupational specialization in the 19th century, other bodies began to claim professional status: Pharmacy, Veterinary Medicine, Nursing, Teaching, Librarianship, Optometry and Social Work, all of which could claim, using these milestones, to be professions by 1900."

    As a communication advisor, I would not call my occupation a profession even though I try to impart some professionalism in my work.

    Stephen Masty

  6. In all the sales training I've had over the years, I've been told many times that sales is a "profession." I think the point is that many sales people are insecure about what they do for a living, as if selling inherently lacked dignity. The many unprofessional sales people that have existed over the years, the pushy obnoxious types of caricature, have contributed to this.

    So in the historical sense selling may not be technically a profession, but it is something that can be done with the utmost of professionalism. My father, who embodied the caricature, said nothing gets done unless someone sells something to somebody. The vast majority of people in this country make a living because sales people get something done. They are willing to be made uncomfortable every day, be rejected over and over again, and keep fighting. In fact, selling, which to me is really educating, is the engine that drives capitalism and prosperity. We need all the other parts of the vehicle, but without the engine we are going nowhere.

  7. Dana,

    Thanks for the quote by Robert E. Lee. What a Godly man of integrity was he.

    Penny
    Arkansas,
    whose daughter graduated Hillsdale 2001

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