Democracy at Work (for Better or Worse)
A little perspective on the debt-ceiling fracas might not be amiss. And so...
Whoever said it first spoke a mouthful: Rome wasn't built in a day. To which I would add: congressmen didn't build it either. Members of Congress bicker, bellow and throw nails under each other's pickup tires seemingly trying to block meaningful action like the enactment of legislation authorizing payment of national obligations.
The antics and head-butts that have lately enlivened life in Washington, D.C., have made most Americans, I judge, want to draw the curtains and plug an old Harry Potter flick into the DVD player. It seemed, until recently, our leaders couldn't get serious about reducing spending. They could only accuse each other of perfidy. Nancy Pelosi found intuitive evidence that John Boehner had gone over to "the dark side." John McCain became a dartboard after pleading with the Tea Party for compromise.
It took a midnight ride to the edge of the cliff to get the job done and only for the moment.
"For the moment" actually doesn't seem bad or daunting though. Two realities emerge at the end of the day.
First, Rome, indeed, wasn't built in a single day, like some 1920s oil boomtown. It seems silly, perhaps, to indulge in 500-year-old platitudes. (On the other hand, 500-year-old platitudes would not have been platitudinous unless they were true.)
To my mind, the Tea Party is an exemplary alliance of commendable and patriotic folk. Nonetheless, the fact is, that the Senate was never going to oblige the Tea Party by passing a balanced budget amendment. Even if it had passed one, so what? As the great Milton Friedman demonstrated, the thing you want to keep your eye on isn't the deficit; it's government spending as a percentage of the economy. Deficits come, deficits go. When they go, we want to be sure that doesn't excite lawmakers whose purpose in life is diverting more private sector resources to government.
What the political process has now—at its very worst—is a start toward fiscal responsibility—a rude, messy start, but still a start. The walls of Rome took their time rising. Similarly, the national debt express has for years been hurtling along at top speed. If we apply the brakes to federal spending, the express will slow, then stop. But, that's hardly the work of one decision.
The second reality we recognize is that democracy works—even when it doesn't suit us. Understand that the $14.7 trillion federal debt is a democratic phenomenon. We the people asked for the things we wanted, or thought we did. Our lawmakers obliged us. We must have liked what they gave us—Social Security, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.—because we kept re-electing these open-handed philanthropists. They assured us we could afford it. We fell for it—hard.
Even when democracy works without working just right, it can do its job—letting the people demand course corrections. The correction for which the Democrats seem headed in 2012 may not be as bad as Democrats fear or Republicans hope. Many Americans still favor the high, wide and handsome spending of money—especially money from other people's pockets. Nonetheless, the whole money, jobs and big government conundrum is now on the table for national consideration. The candidates and the public will talk of little else for the next year, which is how things are supposed to go in a democracy, when people are gloomy and worried.
Is this a transcendently splendid moment as default and downgrade anxiety—let us pray—subsides temporarily? No way! It's a lousy moment full of peril intensified by the high-volume screaming on political blogs. Yet, this is how democratic nations move forward as well as backwards: by having their say and charting or re-charting the way ahead. We'd do well to keep in mind that, that is what is going on right now in our most-of-the-time beloved nation.
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