America's Unfriendly Ghost

In "Fool," his absurdist Shakespearean knock-off, Christopher Moore begins with a who's who: there are Lear and Cornwall, Kent and Regan, Goneril and the Witches Three. And a ghost. As Moore puts it, "there's always a bloody ghost.

There is always, it seems, a ghost: a ghost who hovers, spooks, warns, and wraps its spectral arms around the unfolding action, foiling the players' plans and driving the story straight toward a cliff.

In America, that ghost is the deficit.  Or if you prefer to think big and long-term, the national debt.  We've long since crossed the line between millions and billions and trillions, with an annual deficit well over a trillion dollars and the accumulated debt nearly $12 trillion.  Where is it that this particular ghost--no cartoon--is driving us?

Donald Rumsfeld, defending his Iraq War decisions, argued that one goes to war with the army one has, not the army one might wish for, and there is considerable doubt whether we can now come up with the cash to build the army he would have liked.  Up-front costs of proposed health care legislation cause conservatives - and not only conservatives - to gag.  With mounting needs for infrastructure repair, wars that go on and on, and an out-of-control Wall Street sucking up billions of taxpayers' dollars (hey, somebody has to pay for the bonuses), the current national deficit disorder is not a deficit of attention but a heightened attentiveness to a financial shortfall that constrains current capacity and paints a Shakespearean gloom over the future.

The Congress, which has its own attention deficit disorder, often forgets that it has promised, repeatedly, to bring spending under control. Rules requiring a dollar of spending reduction for every dollar in spending increase, like those famous "sunset" provisions designed to prevent programs from living forever, are simply ignored when it comes time to make hard choices. Like the majestic redwood tree, government knows but one imperative: to grow.

This is not to pass judgment on any particular proposal but to suggest that it is the way of children to pretend that one can have it all. If one wishes to argue that a national health care plan is a moral imperative, he or she must be willing to suggest that something else on the table is less so and can be cut back to meet the moral imperative. If one argues that the army we have is inadequate for a nation that must be prepared to combat not only the Iraqi insurgency, al Qaeda, and the re-energized Taliban, but must also be capable of countering emerging threats from Iran, North Korea, or any other hostile quarter, one must also be resigned to dropping another program to a lower spot on the priority list.

I found during my years in Congress that such choosing is not something many are good at. Liberals, maintaining solidarity, fought against cuts, or even holding the line, on a whole host of projects they considered important responsibilities of government. Conservatives did the same thing, with only the list of priorities differing (conservatives were far more likely to complain about the deficit while liberals were too inclined to dismiss it as money we owed to ourselves, but many conservatives were hard-pressed to find any military-related expenditure or business-subsidy program they found expendable). The result: money-saving possibilities become the fuel for ideological and partisan battle rather than impetus for grown-ups to sit down together and search for savings in programs across the board.

Here's the thing: ghosts may seem wispy and ethereal and the temptation is to ignore them. But there are some that we ignore at our own peril. Shakespeare knew it. Many economists know it, too. It's time our political leaders took this ghost seriously because this is not Casper we're dealing with.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons and Flickr User blair christensen