I have not talked very much about the debt crisis in the United States, a crisis that appears to be facing a last-minute compromise between all of the interested parties, as would have been reasonable to expect from the start. I have not talked about it as it filled my inbox with messages of doom and gloom largely because I talked about them before in a little-read blog entry that suggested some of the difficult and painful ways that this crisis could be solved . You may look up the entry yourself if you are so inclined.
But first, before I talk more about the problem of reckoning as it relates to the United States budget crisis, I would like to talk about the grim fate of a talented 16th century playwright, and hopefully the connection will be clear. In about 1592, the talented and flambouyant playwright Christopher Marlowe (whose epic works include the Jew of Malta, Edward II, and Doctor Faustus) was found dead in a barfight. It was said to be a great reckoning in a little bar. On the surface, the death of a playwright, like the death of a salesman, is not a particularly notable tragedy. The tragedy is in the details. Marlowe’s death immediately brought his friends and coworkers under a deep scrutiny. His roommate, Thomas Kyd, author of the most popular play in the entire 16th century in England (“The Spanish Tragedy,” let us remember that this was a century in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were written and first produced as well, many we still see and read today), was tortured by the Elizabethan government under suspicious circumstances.
Marlowe himself had been a man with a deep secret life. He was a well-educated person who had gone to university and been seen as a cultured gentleman, but he lived an exceedingly dark life. In an age of deep religious intolerance he was a dangerously freethinking individual, if not an atheist. He was also a fairly open sodomite, when it was dangerous, if not fatal, to be so inclined (even for monarchs, as the life and death of Edward II demonstrates). He was also a spy for the English government, and his death may have been for any number of reasons, possibly including his political enemies as a spy of her majesty’s government. Marlowe was in over his head, and he paid with his life, in a scene where there was an easy “cover-up” to say that the death was over a simple bar bill.
In many ways this fight over the debt level was a great reckoning in a little bar. As a practical matter, the debt level had been increased many times before, without fanfare and without fighting. The fight was not over the debt limit itself, as much as it was over vastly deeper and more troubling questions. I wish to at least examine some of those questions and deal with their painful implications, because there are no easy answers. There is only great suffering and anguish and misery behind any of the answers, and so I do not wish to leave the reader with any illusions as to that point. The only question is who will suffer and how long. That will be true if no deal is made in time, or if a deal is made this very minute, and it will be true for decades to come.
Let us take the example of the debt itself. Nations, as a result of their sovereign capacity to inflate debts into insignificance, or default on them with relative impunity, do not treat debt levels as seriously as private individuals do. They are easily led into the (mistaken) belief that debt is a good thing for governments because it allows them to do things that ordinary people are prevented from doing as a result of fiscal constraints. Nonetheless, there are levels, both in terms of absolute numbers and percentages, that lead even politicians (and, perhaps more importantly, the voters) to quail. Trillions and trillions of dollars in debt, with deficits running into many hundreds of billions per year, tends to make people think that such debts will never be repaid, that the costs of them will be borne by their children and by their children’s children.
In many ways, this is precisely the case. Clement Atlee, the prime minister after Churchill, is a well-beloved prime minister in many polls because of his immensely popular social welfare policies after World War II. Likewise, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt is also a much beloved president by many historians, for similar reasons. No one dings them too heavily for the fact that the social welfare systems they set up in both Great Britain and the United States were fundamentallyl unsustainable ponzi schemes designed with the tactical goal of calming present unrest about economic hard times and with future costs and burdens discounted nearly to zero. People are willing to do this if they do not care about the future, if they are purely short-sighted and present-oriented, or if they have no real concern for the difficulties they will face when older, or that their children and grandchildren (if they have thgem) will face.
And many people in present society are hostile to children, have little concern for legacies, and consider the future relatively or even completely meaningless in their calculations. This is not merely a personal problem, though to some extent all of us (myself included) struggle with overcoming those tendencies. We recognize, intuitively, that the command to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth means that there will be a judgment because there is only so much space and only so many resources to use. So long as we remain imprisoned on this planet, we will eventually face a Judgment Day. It may be religious, it may be demographic, it may be agricultural, it may be economic, but that day will eventually come.
Therefore, in seeking to put off that day of judgment in light of felt environmental constraints and the desire to live a good life unimpeded by (very expensive) dependents that demand time, love, attention, and a fair amount of economic resources, it is understandable that greedy and short-sighted people would disparage the long-term attributes of parenting that are most akin to a hardworking farmer planting a crop and then working hard and praying hard for a good crop, knowing that the results are somewhat beyond his control but that he will be held responsible for how the crop turns out anyway.
The difficulty is that avoiding or disparaging children only makes the problem worse. In many ways, our societies are ponzi schemes depending on lower wage workers coming in from foreign countries to bring our own prices down so that our consumers can pay for products with wages lowered by previous wage-lowering strategies like moving businesses away from union areas, or moving them overseas, and replacing them with low-wage and low-status service jobs. To pay for the social security and medical expenses of baby boomers, there need to be a lot of economically productive younger people to bear that burden. But who will pay for them and take of them when they get old? And so on, and so on. It’s turtles all the way down—an infinite regress problem.
So, the question, long-term (and, in the long run, we’re all dead), is what shall we do to delay or deny massive and painful judgment coming upon us? Is it already too late to avoid it? These questions are deeply troubling. For if we really wanted to really slash our debt levels, most of what we could do is decidedly unpleasant. We can slash expenditures, which eventually means giving up our policy of “buying” friends through massive foreign aid, slashing our massive military establishment, and/or cutting popular entitlements such as Social Security, Disability, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment, and so on. No one wants to do these things—they are political suicide, and the last set of actions is itself extremely cruel, considering most of the people who depend on those really do not have any other better options in the absence of close-knit families, local community help, or religious institutions that can pick up the slack. We can increase revenues, but this means increasing taxes (since the current clobal trade treaties forbid tariff barriers which used to serve as the United State’s main source of federal income), and could mean punitive estate taxes, the taxing of life insurance benefits, and drastic increases to the income and sales tax burden. To do such things is also political suicide, though it may eventually become necessary. The only other ways to avoid paying the piper amount to some kind of default, whether through inflation or some other means (the Roman Empire in the third century AD and the Spanish Empire in the seventeenth century AD tried that, and it didn’t work out too well for them). This option tends to increase borrowing costs, making it economically unsustainable as lenders (sensibly) fear for the security of their investments and demand higher interest costs in response. Everything has a price.
Clearly, we are facing a day of great recknoning. We’re like a drunk who has spent all day at the bar when we should be working, buying rounds for our fellow alcoholics, feeling proud that we aren’t passed out at the bar like some of our other alcoholic buddies (nations like Greece or Portugal, for example), and last call is coming. We’re going home along, and want to put that off as long as possible so we order one last drink from the bartender, and then we’re going to put the whole tab for the day on our credit card, not aware that the card is going to be declined. Small wonder we are so anxious and worried about what is to come. The day of reckoning is coming and we aren’t remotely prepared for it.