Last week was heralded as the beginning of the general election showdown between Obama and Romney, and we got a full dose of what we can expect over the next six months. We are going to be pulled daily into the thick of thin things. Why did Romney put the dog kennel on the top of his car 30 years ago? Did Obama really eat dog meat when he was a kid? Does Ann Romney’s experience as a stay-at-home mom disqualify her as an advisor to her husband? Does Obama play too much golf? Is Romney just weird? Is Obama really a Muslim? Which of the candidates’ polygamist ancestors had the most wives? The list of garbage topics will grow daily.
Then add to these silly issues the insane, off-the-wall fabrications of the media (the one last week, for example, that Romney favors denying women and blacks the right to vote), the bona fide ugly news items of the day (GSA’s Vegas boondoggles, Secret Service hookers, and the like), and the irresistible urge of many politicians to keep promising more government freebies that we can’t afford.
With all this, it’s possible (probably likely) that most Americans will never focus on the mega issue of our time – the pace at which government spending should continue to grow. This issue has never been more important because we’ve never been so weak and so vulnerable. It’s now the ball game.
And as we also saw last week, the issue is just too hot for our politicians, who can’t even agree on the most basic premise of any budget – that spending should grow at an affordable pace. It’s why we haven’t had a federal budget in over three years, not even when the Democrats controlled everything. And the ugly spectacle in the Senate last week confirmed that our “budgetless” status will continue for at least another year.
The hang-up, of course, is that a real budget would expose the truth about our fiscal mess – that we’re racking up an additional trillion dollars of debt every 10 to 12 months and rolling the dice big time on our future. There’s no way Harry Reid and his buddies in the Senate are going to go on record for voting for a budget that promises an ever-escalating federal debt that will balloon to an unimaginable $29 trillion within the next ten years and an insane annual interest tab in the trillion dollar range. And heaven forbid that they even consider reductions in the growth rate of federal spending that would provide a basis for a sustainable future. Their political survival plan is (and has been) to duck future spending and debt risks by completely shirking their mandated budget duties. That allows the unsustainable spending increases to continue with no one having to claim ownership.
The President has been of no help. His last two proposed budgets were so bad that they received virtually no support in Congress. These feeble budget efforts only confirmed that spending rate and debt increases are not a priority or concern. Obama will pay lip service to our unsustainable debt mess only to advance an illusion that higher rates on the rich are the key to a cure. He struggles mightily to shift the focus away from spending, as he keeps promising more and aggressively demonizing those who make a case for ratcheting spending rate increases down to sustainable levels.
So if our elected officials won’t tackle this defining problem, is there any hope for the voting electorate? Is there any reasonable possibility that a significant portion of the all-important swing independent voters will have enough interest to cut through the thick of the thinner crap and focus on the potential risks of a debt crisis that would badly cripple our economy for decades, force draconian austerity measures, and gut all entitlement programs? Who knows? What we do know is that many in the media and elsewhere will do everything in their power to ignore, hide, and obfuscate the issue.
As I watched various crazy thin issues surface and take center stage this past week, I pondered whether anything could be done to help get people focused on the risks of our unprecedented debt mess. The idea of a slogan came to mind. Something short, with a little punch, that could be easily remembered and passed along. So I started thinking about the possibilities of such a slogan. I had my short list of candidates within 15 minutes. My final choice was made by a series of coin tosses. By way of disclaimer, I know nothing about slogans – campaign or otherwise. But here’s what I came up with.
My slogan would be “250k?” That’s it. That number represents each household’s share of the projected $29 trillion in debt that we’ll be saddled with in 10 years if we stay on our current course and our financial house doesn’t collapse before getting there. It’s a scary prospect. It’s like a mortgage on a second house without the house – for every household in America. And it’s a debt that will never go away. It will just keep growing larger.
Of course, the sheer size of the number raises a host of crucial survival questions. Where would we even get $29 trillion? Would we just keep printing money? Wouldn’t that destroy the value of the dollar, force more rating downgrades, and forfeit the dollar’s cherished status as the reserve currency of the world? Isn’t it completely foolhardy to think that our debt can spiral upwards towards such a number without killer interest rate hikes? And won’t those interest rate hikes trigger the dreaded debt crisis that could crash everything?
Some middle-income Americans may take comfort in the notion that such an average per household hit number doesn’t reflect the larger share that the wealthy will be forced to pick up. What they forget is that the wealthy are badly outnumbered by poor households who can offer little or nothing. Nearly half of American’s families don’t make enough now to pay any income taxes. That’s why, when it comes to fiscal irresponsibility, averages, and “fair share” realities, it’s the middle class that always ends up the big loser. Unlike the wealthy, they’re strapped to their jobs and have little or no flexibility to restructure their affairs to soften the hits.
Why is the slogan expressed as a question? It’s to recognize that America is divided over whether we should stay on a course that will take us to such a monstrous debt number. Many (maybe most) of our elected officials are focused only on the here and now. Just keep promising and keep the government cash flow spigots growing at all costs. Don’t sweat the future; it will take care of itself. They ignore all the warning signs and talk of future risks. Others argue strongly for structural (and, yes, some painful) reductions in the growth rate of the spigots to slow the borrowing pace. And, of course, there are those who advocate a cold turkey approach that would instantly cut off all future debt increases even if it triggers unbearable consequences (and it would).
Of course, slogan or not, we’ll never know what approach the American electorate would choose if presented with a clear, informed choice. That’s not how politics work. What we do know is that American’s spending pace and debt course for the future will likely be decided on November 6. One way or the other, the “250k?” question will be answered. And given the magnitude of the numbers and unprecedented stakes, that’s a scary reality. The answer to this future-defining question may turn on Romney’s historical dog practices, Obama’s golf obsession, and a multitude of other issues that will be ginned up in the months ahead to keep voters buried in the thick of thin things.