Wrong Track


There have always been reasons why some things -- desirable things, important things - don't happen.  It is a question, always, of limits.  Not limits in desirability but limits in capacity.

Over the past year we have determined that some companies - auto companies, investment companies - are "too big to fail".  The depths of their malfeasance have apparently given them protection against the workings of the market.  While wise and careful stewards of smaller businesses have been swept away in the backwash, the giants whose blind grab for riches created the swells have been protected  -- sometimes to the point of new megamillion bonuses - by the rest of us.

We have continued to invest heavily in two wars: in one, of questionable value, the government we've installed and depend on for success remains sadly inept; in the other, the government we've installed is corrupt and incompetent.  Both Iraq and Afghanistan suck up American dollars at a horrendous rate.  To say nothing of the 180,000 private contractors we pay in Iraq alone (often without transparency or accountability) to supplement the heavy U.S. military presence.

Argue for or against the health care proposals being pushed by the President and making their way through Congress, accept or reject the contention that eventually (perhaps while we're still alive) those proposals will reduce, rather than increase, government spending, but in the meantime, the tab will be enormous.

All of this matters because, as the New York Times has reported, by 2019 - tomorrow, for all practical purposes - we will have added half a trillion dollars a year or more to what we'll have to pay just in interest on a national debt that is now more than $12 trillion, the price of, as the Times put it, decades of the United States "living beyond its means."  And, as the paper pointed out - twisting the knife a bit - those additional interest payments on the debt (on top of the $200 billion in interest we now pay) will add up to more than we now spend every year on education, energy, homeland security, and those two never-ending wars, combined.

There are two things to consider here.  The first has to do with the nature of government spending.  That is, the belief that it is the government that will be providing us with new benefits and services.  That, of course, is nonsense.  Government provides nothing because government has nothing.  Every dime the government spends is a dime taken from the pockets of taxpayers (its only source of money) either in taxes or inflation.

The second thing is this: we're now at a point in our economy - houses foreclosed, jobs lost, businesses boarded up - where the people who will get the bill are scraping by themselves.  That's true for the 20 percent of Americans who need help to pay for health insurance and for most of the 80 percent who already have health insurance.  It's true for the people whose lives have been smashed against the rocks of corporate greed emanating from the sewer of Wall Street.

A "wish list" is called that because some of the things on it are things that one cannot, at the moment, afford.  If it were otherwise, it wold be called a "shopping list".  Regardless of which political party controls the government, we seem to get the two lists confused.  To want is to need and to need is to buy.  We would not all make the same choices as to which items belong on which list - some would cut back on the military spending (George Will, among others, has suggested it's time to come home from Afghanistan); others would cut back on the shopping list for various social spending programs.  But the Times had it right.  So did Robert Samuelson, in the Washington Post, when he decried the heavy debt burden being passed on to the younger generation (some gift to give our kids!).

(There are other effects, too, of course; one of them is watching American presidents tiptoe around human rights violations, product ripoffs, subpar exports, etc., to avoid alienating foreign creditors, but that's for another discussion.) 

Partisanship - the non-stop war between the two private clubs that dominate American politics - has made it almost impossible for people of divergent views to hold a serious conversation in which all prospects and problems are put on the table, but it's time.  Everybody is going to have to give up part of the wish list and revise the shopping list. Americans continue to tell pollsters that their country has gotten off on a wrong track. They're right.  It's time we listened to them.

(Photo: Jim Watson/AFP-Getty Images)

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Mickey Edwards spent 16 years in Congress and 16 years teaching at Harvard and Princeton. He is a director of The Constitution Project and wrote Reclaiming Conservatism. More

Mickey Edwards was a member of Congress for 16 years and a chairman of the House Republican leadership's policy committee. After leaving Congress, he taught at Harvard for 11 years, where he was voted the Kennedy School's most outstanding teacher, and at Princeton for five years. He currently runs a political leadership program for elected officials as Vice President of the Aspen Institute and teaches defense policy and foreign policy at George Washington University. He has been a weekly columnist for The L.A. Times and The Chicago Tribune and is a weekly commentator on National Public Radio. Edwards served for five years as national chairman of the American Conservative Union and the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. He was one of three founding trustees of the Heritage Foundation. In 1980, he directed more than a dozen joint House-Senate policy advisory task forces for Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign. He is a director of The Constitution Project and has chaired task forces for the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. He served on the American Bar Association task force that condemned President George W. Bush, and his most recent book, Reclaiming Conservatism, was published in 2008.

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