Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The debt ceiling debate - it's all about "me"

Wanting to watch the debt ceiling vote live last night without too much commentary from the talking heads, we tuned in to C-SPAN’s streaming online video about 10 minutes before votes were cast.

If you are familiar with C-SPAN’s coverage, you know that they fill time before major votes and press conferences taking calls from average voters from around the country.

These days, there are three different lines available – Democrat, Republican and Independent.

Sadly, based on what we heard, C-SPAN really only needed one line – Entitled.

A majority of callers – from all three lines – stated that their main concern about the debt ceiling debacle was that they wanted to make sure they received their “check,” whether it was Social Security or disability or something else. Very few called to say they were concerned about our country as a whole, or the future generations who would be paying the bill for those checks and all of the other debt that is continuing to grow by the second.

We get that there are many Americans who need government assistance – especially in today’s world. We don’t begrudge them that help.

What bothers us – and what the debt ceiling debate has laid bare to – is the way so many in America feel they are “entitled” to be taken care of by someone else. For some, it’s their government check. For others, it’s a re-election unmarred by a second debt ceiling debate (we’re looking at you, President Obama) and a way to go on summer vacation without having a thorny issue hanging over their heads.

The debt ceiling debate should have been about the fact that our nation finds itself drowning in debt and with a population of unemployed workers that's greater than the population of many states. The generation that comes after Generation Y and Generation Z is poised to be Generation IOU. However, these concerns ultimately got drowned out by a prevailing attitude of, "I want what's mine, right now, and let the chips fall where they may after that."

This sense of entitlement is exactly what the Democrats preyed on to win support for raising the debt ceiling. Congressional Democrats scored points emphasizing the danger of default as a way to force a deal, and they made appeals to their base that things like entitlement spending should not fall victim to suspension by way of default or to long-term budget cuts. These factors ultimately forced a deal, showing that people are susceptible to scare tactics and class warfare. In the aftermath, to those outside their base, Democrats look like they are unwilling to make the serious cuts needed to balance the budget and reduce the debt long-term, and that one of their main goals is to raise taxes to support gluttonous federal spending. And, to those inside the Democratic base who want entitlement spending preserved, there are concerns that the final compromise gave up too much.

Congressional Republicans emphasized the broader context of the budget, the danger of out-of-control entitlement spending, and the threat of tax increases. They pleased their base by making the issue about America borrowing too much money overall instead of about America not being able to borrow enough money under the current debt ceiling. They pushed their "Cut, Cap and Balance" plan forward despite Senate disapproval. However, in the aftermath and to those outside their base, Republicans look uncompromising and willing to sacrifice the stability of the economy for their own conservative principles. And, portions of the Republican base (particularly the Tea Party) are disappointed that the party ultimately relented too easily to an increase in the debt ceiling (to over $16 trillion) that far eclipses spending cuts (worth only $20 billion or so in 2012).

Ultimately, the final resolution of the current debate happened because neither side wanted the blame for a default pinned to them going in to the 2012 election cycle. After weeks of each side holding out for what they said they were unwilling to compromise, the one thing they were most unwilling to give up was their own political future. Almost universally, members of Congress are complaining about the bill that is being passed and lamenting how difficult it was to vote for or against it. Again, the issue is all about them and not the greater good of the country. If they were actually concerned about the state of our finances, would they be leaving today for a five-week break?

Digging deeper into the "all about me" file, we come to President Obama. We think he exhibited a profound lack of leadership and overwhelming selfishness on the issue. Throughout the debate, the President's public message was one of encouraging "compromise." But, it's apparent that he had one mission in mind: to secure a deal to raise the debt ceiling past his own reelection campaign. He offered few plans or suggestions of his own, choosing instead to act as some sort of "Broker-in-Chief" to bring Congressional leaders together in time. His failure to do so across weeks of time leaves him looking as if he is incapable of deal-making with Washington's real power brokers and that he has few ideas of his own. And, his progressive base appears as if it's starting to abandon him. The President seems to have accomplished no real victory in the debate except for having it go away for awhile and being able to peacefully celebrate his birthday in Chicago tomorrow.

As the President signs the debt ceiling bill into law later today, America will still find itself with an unemployment level over nine percent, a debt of $14 trillion skyrocketing to $16 trillion soon, and with a more than $1 trillion year-to-year budget deficit. Our collective "me, me, me" attitude remains intact and survives as the prism through which we approach political problems these days. Members of Congress and the President are slapping each other on the back, congratulating each other for saving the world, while we're now two steps away from falling off the cliff instead of one. Meanwhile, the only thing future generations will be "entitled" to is a big fat bill.

1 comment:

  1. I think both sides need to wake up and make the hard choices (all be it there are too many to list). Simplifying the matter, we need to raise taxes on the rich ($250,000+ yearly income)and simultaneously be very aggressive on lowering our spending; Two very hard pills to swallow. Think of our nation as a business, I do not know of or ever heard of any business that can spend more money than they make. Eventually the debt collector will come knocking (and if it were you or me or any average American we would end up losing our shirts and/or our homes). It just comes down to simple dollars and cents people. Of course the actual solution will be much bigger than raising taxes and lowering spending but if our "leaders" (and I use that term very lightly) can look at this situation through the eyes of an entrepreneur the solution will present itself.


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