The linked editorial by Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, speaks to the need to make tough choices to fund the intiatives proposed by President Obama in his budget. In a particularly cynical mood, I wrote the following response:
This may be the fatal flaw in democracy – the inability to make tough choices. Like a family with four children that is run democratically, the end result is inevitably a bankrupt household loaded with toys, run by truant, morbidly obese children, lying around in front of the TV amid the clutter of empty pop cans, potato chip bags and candy wrappers.
How can any tough choices ever be made when we are governed by people interested above all else in re-election who will tell us what we want to hear – that we can have it all while reducing taxes further with each election cycle?
I see absolutely no hope that these problems will ever be addressed.
What hope can we have that any of our problems will be addressed when one party tells us that we can have it all, to be paid for later, while the other party tells us that we can cut taxes more and more without consequence? Both parties say they want fiscal responsibility, but the time is never right. There’s always some crisis that must be dealt with first.
Then I remembered that similar problems are dealt with successfully all the time at the state level. The arguments about spending and taxes are virtually the same, yet compromise is ultimately reached and budgets are balanced. Why? Because it’s mandated by the state constitutions.
In the 222 years since the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the constitution has been amended eighteen times to add 27 amendments. Only one amendment, the 16th, ratified 96 years ago in 1913, dealt with the economy and the financing of our federal government. The 16th amendment established the income tax, addressing the fears of many that the United States would soon become insolvent without it. Until that time, all federal revenue was generated from tariffs on imports and from some small “excise taxes” that were nothing more than incomes taxes disguised to skirt questions about their constitutionality.
Just imagine what our nation’s leaders in 1913, concerned about insolvency then, when our national debt was about $2.6 billion, would think if they could see the state of our nation’s finances today. Today, our national debt is 5,000 times higher. Even adjusted for inflation and population growth, the per capita share of the national debt burden is about 77 times higher. In 1913, we had no trade deficit, while in 2008 our trade deficit was $677 billion. In 1913 we were self-sufficient in energy resources while today we import 75% of our energy needs. I think it’s safe to say that the framers of our constitution and even our nation’s leaders in 1913 who were so concerned about the potential for insolvency would be absolutely stunned and aghast at what has become of our country, now bankrupt in every sense of the word.
Because of the political consequences associated with making tough choices, none are ever made. There is talk in Washington of a complete overhaul of regulation of our financial industry. But the problems go much deeper and the need for reform extends much further. Nothing less than constitutional amendments are needed if we are to have any hope of a return to fiscal responsibility and any hope of dealing with mortal threats to the continued viability of our nation, including the trade deficit, energy policy and overpopulation.
If our philosophical differences prevent us from reaching agreement on how to balance the budget, let’s begin by agreeing that it needs to be done and mandate it through an amendment to the constitution. If we can’t agree on how long to wait for our free trade policy to eventually restore a balance, we can agree that an enormous, perpetual trade deficit is unsustainable and amend the constitution to require a balance. If we can’t muster up the courage to utter even a peep of concern about the potential for population growth to transform us into another India, then let’s amend the constitution to at least force a discussion on where we’re going and just high high we’re willing to let our population rise.
The framers of our constitution could never even begin to imagine the breadth and depth of the problems that now beset us. Otherwise, they would surely have included mandates to force us to deal with them. But we can see the problems clearly. The question is, do we have the courage to act, as our forefathers surely would have if they had a crystal ball, or is this also too tough a choice for us to face?