Reckless at Any Speed
While disasters loom, government fiddles.
Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
The earthquake that struck Chile on February 27 was sudden. The ground shuddered without warning. The devastation was immediate. Like all natural calamities it was random, rapid, and beyond human control.
Disasters come in many shapes, however. Not only are there tremors and storms, there are also manmade tempests that you can see coming from miles and miles away. And these events can be just as ruinous to an economy, just as deadly to human life, just as destabilizing to the international system as a tsunami. Even more so.
The difference? Advanced democracies hedge against whatever nature might throw at them. They establish building codes and draft emergency protocols. They prepare for the crises they know will arrive, even if they do not know the exact times and places.
Yet when it comes to the disasters that result from human activity, disasters that are long in the making, we turn a blind eye. A few brave voices may sound the alarm. But no one really listens. The individuals who benefit from the current arrangements offer excuse after excuse. The situation can be contained, they say. No need to be proactive. No need for boldness.
Consider the federal budget. Its condition is perilous. Set aside the debate over which party is responsible for the record deficits and debt—the answer is both—and the question becomes: Which party has the political imagination and the political courage required to address the situation and make the American welfare state sustainable?
Sadly, the answer is neither. One party is afraid that promising less to future retirees or raising the retirement age or indexing benefits to income will dash its chances in the November elections. The other wants to spend even more money the government does not have, because it does not believe there is any problem that taxing the rich can’t fix.
But there is a problem. A big problem. Greece and California’s present is America’s future. As it stands, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and debt service constitute more than 60 percent of all government expenditure. The number is set to rise to more than 75 percent within a decade. Left unchecked, these four items will consume the entire federal budget by midcentury. By that time America likely will have experienced its first debt crisis. High interest rates? Inflation? They are coming.
We cannot tax our way out. No matter how much revenue the government receives, Nancy Pelosi and her allies will always spend an additional dollar. American Enterprise Institute scholar Andrew Biggs estimates the federal government would have to impose an immediate and permanent 30 percent increase on every tax in order to balance its books—in 25 years. American families and small businesses are in enough trouble already. If the spending does not stop, they will hurt even more. And yet we do nothing.
This passivity is not restricted to the domestic arena. Consider the global response to the Iranian quest for an atomic bomb. Construction of the first Iranian nuclear reactor began decades ago. The International Atomic Energy Agency announced that Iran had failed to disclose the full extent and purpose of its nuclear program back in 2003. What has happened since? America and her European allies have pleaded with the Iranians to stop uranium enrichment in exchange for bushel upon bushel of carrots. The Iranians have rebuked their suitors. The centrifuges have kept spinning.
Some believe that time is not a concern and that a nuclear Iran can be deterred, because the Iranian regime is “rational” and “like us.” But the regime is not like us. It funds insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, sponsors terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza, and aspires to regional hegemony. This is a theocratic “military dictatorship” (Hillary Clinton’s words) that routinely uses deadly force and repression against its own people. Its dictator calls for the annihilation of Israel on a daily basis.
Yet the American president grasps at straws at the U.N. And the foreign policy establishment plays make-believe in a delusional attempt to convince the public that a nuclear, adversarial power in the Middle East is no biggie. International law has no force. The Iranians act with impunity.
Tame nature? That’s hubris. But we do have the power to control ourselves—to stop reckless behavior at home and abroad. The only alternative is to stand agape and power-less in the face of the gathering storm.