Our overall personal savings rate is a serious problem. So is our federal budget where we keep demanding more from government (whether it's a war, medical benefits, or tax cuts) without any input from the public. I hear over and over "so and so is going to raise your taxes." As I've noted before, I think that's a fundamentally flawed way of looking at government. "The government" doesn't tax us; we're supposed to decide through our government how to tax ourselves for the programs we say we want. But there now seems to be a substantial portion of the public who want the programs, but not the taxes.
I've already criticized the position of those who support an extended stay in Iraq but refuse to raise taxes by a dime to pay for it. I'm equally critical of those who say that if we ended our military venture, then we could spend that money at home. But there is no money to transfer; it's all borrowed. Now, there's good debt and there's bad debt (I think that tax cuts for the wealthy is bad debt), but let's not pretend that it isn't debt.
I'd love to hear some politician say: "Look folks, we're not close to paying our bills as a nation. It's not 'the government's' debt; it's your debt. And if you want the problem solved, you have to be willing to do something about it. The choices are relatively simple. We can have higher taxes, or fewer programs, or some combination of the two. Or we can continue on our present course and allow the countries that are financing our debt to control our future. In the end, it's the public that is accountable under our system of government, whether we like it or not, and you have some decisions to make."
But I fear the response would be: "Hey, look at that bright shiny tax cut!" It seems to win elections. But it's not a sustainable form of governance.
I'm reading The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich. I don't agree with a lot of what he writes, but I do agree with this observation: "If one were to choose a single word to describe that identity [of what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century], it would have to be more. For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors."
He then offers several examples of how the ethic of "more" has caused us, through our government, to make decisions that avoid short term pain at long term cost. The most obvious is when Bush told us to go shopping after 9/11 instead of using it as a clarion call to get us out of our oil addiction. But it goes back to 1980 when Carter declared that the US would use "any means necessary" to prevent hostile powers from dominating the Middle East. Reagan got involved in the Iran-Iraq conflict by having the US Navy protect the Kuwaiti tanker fleet. In 2006, Bush said "America is addicted to oil" but called for no action.
No president since Carter has called for action on the part of the public. Even today, substantial numbers of people seem to believe that drilling here and drilling now will have some kind of substantial benefit, even when there is no evidence to show that we have enough oil reserves to do anything but slightly delay the day of reckoning. But since it requires nothing from us, it gets waves of public support.
Bacevich argues that if we are to preserve our liberty, we need to make do with less (at least I think that's what he argues, though I haven't finished the book yet) and reorder our priorities. But can anyone run on that message and still win elections?
We can't expect our elected officials to have the political will to make tough decisions unless their constituents are willing to do so. And maybe that's a message that our representatives could take home to their states and districts, and see if it generates any results.