The unemployment rate is 9 percent and hasn’t been below that level since April 2009. The deficit, meanwhile, is projected to rise to $1.6 trillion this year. It hasn’t been below $1 trillion since 2008. More than $3 trillion has been added to the federal debt since President Obama took office on January 20, 2009. Across the country, state governments are reducing spending, renegotiating benefits, and in some cases mistakenly raising taxes and fees, in order to cope with an unprecedented fiscal crunch. In Washington, D.C., the House of Representatives has begun voting on the largest cuts in domestic discretionary spending in history. The GOP leadership has declared that its budget resolution, due in April, will address the principal engine of spending growth, mandatory spending programs that have been on autopilot for decades. Throughout the land, a bipartisan coalition of state legislators, governors, Tea Party activists, U.S. congressmen and senators, and all species of deficit hawk are rallying behind a noble goal: preventing a future in which America cannot meet her fiscal obligations and resorts to growth-destroying tax rates and savings-destroying inflation just to pay the interest on the debt. And what do House Democrats say in response?
Well, they say, what about Arthur Read? Who speaks for Arthur the Aardvark?
Arthur, as readers of a certain age no doubt know, is the protagonist in a series of beloved children’s books by author Marc Brown. Though Arthur and his rambunctious sister D.W. are aardvarks, they face the same challenges as anyone else under the age of 12. Since 1996, Arthur has also been the star of Arthur, an animated series on PBS. Part of the funding for Arthur comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. House Republicans want to cut $430 million from public broadcasting—and that, Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts said the other day at a news conference on Capitol Hill, would leave “Arthur and his pals in the lurch.” This drive to restrain the federal budget, Markey continued, is nothing less than an “ideological attack on public broadcasting.” A man in a full-body Arthur suit was standing next to him. “Arthur,” Markey said glumly, “your silence is eloquent.”
Now, for all we know, Arthur’s silence may well have been a protest against big government policies that rob Big Bird to pay Elmo. Or perhaps Arthur, being a reasonable aardvark, understood that cuts to public broadcasting most likely won’t result in the end of Sesame Street or Arthur. To the contrary: These million-dollar edutainment juggernauts are more than capable of thriving without government support. What’s more important is that, at a time when most of the adult world is engaged in the great task of disciplining government before the bond markets do it for us, representatives of one of America’s two major political parties seem less concerned with debt than with an oversized, nocturnal insect-eater of the order Tubulidentata.
Indeed, the Democrats’ unseriousness about the challenges facing America in the 21st century is revealing. Somewhere along the line, American liberalism became a reactionary force: more interested in preserving its hard-won constellation of benefits and subsidies than in facing a potentially catastrophic problem head-on and boldly embracing the change necessary for growth and excellence. From health care to Wall Street to pensions, liberals support policies that consolidate dysfunctional systems already in place rather than rethinking—progressing from?—outdated assumptions of what government can and cannot provide the citizenry. Where liberals once proclaimed their willingness to sacrifice for a world where a prosperous America stood as the champion of freedom, it has been left to the Tea Party and conservatives to confront a debt problem that even Obama’s Treasury secretary concedes is “unsustainable.”
More than budget-cutting will be required to ensure that the next 100 years be remembered as the second American century. It will take a willingness to entertain and debate bold public policies, as conservatives are now doing, to cite just one example, with the state bankruptcy proposal put forward by law professor David Skeel in these pages last year. It will mean questioning the conventional wisdom that has governed fiscal and monetary policy for decades. It will demand a strong defense of American exceptionalism and the maintenance of America’s global commitments. It will depend upon leaders who pugnaciously assert the hard truths in pursuit of genuine reform.
It won’t be easy. But Americans, we trust, will prefer a lion conservatism to an aardvark liberalism.