Debt and Duty

This has been a difficult week; debt crisis resolution talks going to the last moment in Washington, an horrific mass murder by a lunatic in Norway, and an aborted followup attack on Fort Hood by a Muslim US soldier. It’s been a week of horror, frustration, sadness, and fear.

There is no question whatever that partisan politics is driving the current debt crisis in the nation’s capitol. Fundamentally, there is no benefit to anyone on either side of the growing American political divide to have the US government default. The idea of a downgrade of US government bonds or of the US economy itself by international arbiters of fiscal responsibility – the very same that recently downgraded some EU members for their failed economies and unrepayable/unsustainable debt – is almost unimaginable. For the longest time the United States has been seen by the international community as a beacon of fiscal stability and power; the possibility that those days are about to come to an ignominious end is difficult to process for most Americans and for many abroad observing the dramatic and frustrating negotiations in Washington.

One AP White House correspondent describes it all as simply “awful.” But it is much more complex than that. The debt crisis and the feuding concepts of increasing debt versus cutting it are truly the outliers of more fundamental ideological differences of opinion regarding the nature of the mission of our government and its limitations.

Many on the left seem to believe that they alone are the voice of the people, and that those on the right care only for the wealthy. This idea that the left are the protectors of social justice causes has long been a favorite and over-worked meme for them. Elections have been won and lost on this concept of government involvement in the lives of the governed for beneficent purposes. This is the foundation of the liberal/leftist approach to government; it is also the reason why the EU is currently teetering on the edge of complete collapse. There was never any idea among the founding the fathers and the revolutionary generation generally that in the future the US government would fulfill a glorified role of protector/parent to the citizens of the country.

While the debt crisis could be analyzed accurately as a conflict between politicians trying to avert an economic collapse by enforcing the successful Reagan era precedent of tax cutting versus the entitlement driven need to raise taxes to afford all the entitlements there is something much more fundamental at work.

Several days ago CNN posted a story with the following unfortunate headline: “If students fail history, does it matter?”

Perhaps a better approach would have been “why are students failing history?” The question “does it matter” suggests a disturbing ignorance as to the value of knowing who and what we are as Americans, and why. Without history there is no context – this is a definitive statement – without knowledge and understanding of history there is no context to anything.

The founders were consistent in their ideas of the limited nature of their new Republican government. They had just fomented a successful revolution to extricate themselves from monarchical control, and saw the general nature of the new government as limited, as opposed to limitless.

The debt crisis and so many other debates and heated disagreements between left and right are an illustration of the essential differences between (generally) people of goodwill who differ on the nature and purposes of the Federal authority.

Benjamin Franklin, signer of the Declaration of Independence, Member of the Continental Congress, Revolutionary, Ambassador, Scientist, and one of the leading intellectuals of the 18th century wrote of government’s proper role in support of the poor in 1776,

For my own part, I am not so well satisfied of the goodness of this thing. I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer. There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burthen? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. (source: 1, 2)

People of good will have long wished to use the real and perceived financial and legal power of the national authority to uplift and support those whose circumstances do not afford them the ability to do so for themselves. This is, after all the nature of “good will;” it is not however the nature of the national authority, nor can it be under our concepts of democratic capitalism.

The model of national succor is the EU which is now on the verge of collapse as its member states declare their bankrupt conditions one after the other. The succor of the state demands a level of centralization and state power with which most Americans are deeply uncomfortable, and which most reject as contrary to the fundamental promises of freedom guaranteed to Americans through the Constitution. It is not a reasonable trade to convert freedom and individual responsibility to state-sponsored succor and the ever increasing encroachment of the state on the lives of individuals which such succor would allow and require.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson of October 24, 1787, James Madison, author of most of the Federalist Papers, Member of the Continental Congress, and 4th President of the US wrote of the Constitutional debates:

Each of these objects was pregnant with difficulties. The whole of them together formed a task more difficult than can be well conceived by those who were not concerned in the execution of it. Adding to these considerations the natural diversity of human opinions on all new and complicated subjects, it is impossible to consider the degree of concord which ultimately prevailed as less than a miracle. (source)

While we rarely see miracles the negotiations that must eventually result in a debt ceiling agreement that will prevent a US government default might be seen as one when this crisis has passed.

It is in no one’s interest to see a US default, except our enemies’. And even our enemies are aware that they would likely not benefit from a potential global economic collapse that such a default could facilitate. We are in the midst of harsh disagreements at the highest levels of our government with the fundamental nature of the purpose of government underlying them and with the future of the country and perhaps the economy of the world at stake.

While trust in government has rarely been lower and cynicism rarely higher we should recognize from history that democracies are the slowest to move and respond to crises, even those they create themselves.

There is a clear difference between imminent disaster and long-term political/ideological disagreements. The debt crisis is a looming disaster that must be resolved by those men and women sent to Washington to represent the people of the country.

In response to John McCain’s rebuke of Tea Party Republicans by comparing them to Hobbits fighting against Mordor, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky said, “I’d rather be a hobbit than a troll. The hobbits were the heroes.”

Senator Paul is correct to reply in such a fashion. But he should remember also that the Hobbits in Lord of the Rings made alliances with many who otherwise were loath to work together (viz. dwarfs and elves; never trust and elf). In this case, the near enemy is national default. Every member of government should work together to prevent this outcome. There will be time enough later for those issues to be debated which remain matters of contention between the two sides.

Some have suggested that the President might take matters into his own hands and resolve the issue, at least temporarily, with an Executive Order. Such an Order might resolve this problem now but would likely result in a Constitutional crisis that while expected could create a worse crisis. The best course is for a negotiated settlement rather than a Presidential “decree.”

The United States Constitution was born of compromise, and this crisis must be resolved in the same fashion. Our leaders must acknowledge a near enemy that is the enemy of all and defeat it.

Calvin Coolidge was a noted president mostly for one thing – he rarely talked (in comparison to other presidents). Wouldn’t it be a wonder (a miracle, even) if modern presidents followed the model of “Silent Cal?” One of his more famous quotes, from a speech he gave in Washington, DC in 1925 is this:

After all, the chief business of the American people is business.

Over-talking is now a national plague, to which the current Administration is certainly not immune. On July 30th it was announced that Mr. Obama’s Tweet account lost more than 33,000 followers for spamming fellow “tweeters” with “tweets” about the debt crisis. Abuse of the immediate nature of modern political communications apparently has its down side. Cal Coolidge would never have “over-tweeted.”

When this issue of imminent economic crisis is resolved the other matters of ideological differences can be taken up. There is business to be taken care of, a great deal of it. Now, the message to our leadership must be compromise, stabilize, end the crisis – do your duty.


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