Your Sunday Required Reading

Sun, 12 Oct 2008 22:57:06 +0000

Today's required reading is actually from last Sunday, but I've been traveling and catching up this week and am thus a bit late to comment on it. It comes from Andrew Bacevich, in last Sunday's Washington Post. The more I hear him speak and read his books and columns, the more I admire his thinking on the challenges we face as a nation and the pitfalls in the way we have confronted them to date.

The title of the column says it all, "He Told Us to Go Shopping. Now the Bill Is Due." Well, almost all. Here's a key excerpt:

From September 2001 until September 2008, this [oddly business-as-usual] approach allowed Bush to enjoy nearly unfettered freedom of action. To fund the war on terror, Congress gave the administration all the money it wanted. Huge bipartisan majorities appropriated hundreds of billions of dollars, producing massive federal deficits and pushing the national debt from roughly $6 trillion in 2001 to just shy of $10 trillion today. Even many liberal Democrats who decried the war routinely voted to approve this spending, as did conservative Republicans who still trumpeted their principled commitment to fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets.

Bush seems to have calculated -- cynically but correctly -- that prolonging the credit-fueled consumer binge could help keep complaints about his performance as commander in chief from becoming more than a nuisance. Members of Congress calculated -- again correctly -- that their constituents were looking to Capitol Hill for largesse, not lessons in austerity. In this sense, recklessness on Main Street, on Wall Street and at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue proved mutually reinforcing.

This excerpt captures what I was trying to express in my Marketplace commentary last week. We have used debt in every place we could to avoid having to make tough choices. That strategy can work for years, particularly if everyone is in on the con. But it eventually fails when the bills come due. We will find our way out of this mess when we learn that we cannot systematically get something for nothing and should not be organizing our society around that flawed premise. Bacevich's writing is the clearest voice on that issue I have encountered. Read the whole thing.