America is in crisis-a debt crisis that threatens to sink the nation. This crisis has not simply befallen us, like a foreign invasion. We brought it upon ourselves by providing ourselves with an array of well-intentioned, deficit-financed goodies like public health insurance programs, old-age income security, and below-market-rate mortgages for the poor. The road to the poorhouse can be paved with good intentions.
So from George Washington until George W. Bush, we accumulated $5 trillion in national debt. In the eight years that W. was president, we added another $5 trillion. In just over three years, Congress under President Obama's watch has added yet another $5 trillion, and there are no measures in place for blunting this upward curve. The banner word for our times is not "hope" or "change" but "unsustainable."
As bad as our national balance sheet is, the greater tragedy is the unwillingness of our political leaders to address the crisis. They all know it's there. Some propose cutting programs and services, and no doubt we are spending money in ways that are either none of the government's business or counter-productive. But their proposed cuts come from the discretionary spending that is only 18 percent of federal outlays. Good work, but it's like crossing the street for cheaper gas when your problem is the crippling payments on your SUV.
Others advocate taxing "the rich" at sharply higher rates. No doubt there are at least loopholes we could close to make it harder for obviously wealthy citizens to escape the tax burden that some of the rest of us pay. But even if we confiscate all of our wealthiest neighbors' income (and assuming they would continue working as hard as they did before-a big "if"), the crisis would remain.
No one wants to touch the real problem: entitlements. They call it the third rail of American politics because if you touch it, you're political toast. Leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are unwilling to risk sacrificing their political careers by looking seriously at what it would take to secure the nation's fiscal future. To his credit, the president commissioned Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles to recommend a solution, but he ignored their report, and the House of Representatives later rejected it. In Congress, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has suggested a budget that brings entitlement spending under control for a population that is living much longer than the programs were originally designed to serve. That drew political ads that featured him pushing granny over the cliff in her wheelchair. So much for getting serious in serious times.
We have men dying overseas to preserve the country against terrorist attacks. But our leaders in D.C. won't risk their political careers (which aren't even supposed to be careers) to save the nation from impending bankruptcy and ruin.
Great crises call for great courage. We honor our war heroes, but we don't expect to find heroes in politics. We should.