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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Playing make believe

Politics | Obama and Romney offer grand plans to spend money that Uncle Sam doesn't have

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

Got the picture? Mom and Dad are cruising down the interstate in the family van. In the back are all four kids, and they're a tad restless. It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and everyone's also getting a little hungry. A string of billboards suggests all the possibilities. Fast food—or something tastier? Stopped at McDonald's for lunch, and now everyone would like something better.

Problem is—and while Dad and Mom know this, the kids don't—Dad doesn't have more than a handful of change in his pocket, and the challenge of deciding where to stop for dinner is purely academic. Steak or seafood or pizza? Hard choices tonight—except that the billboards mean nothing at all. The decision about where to eat has already basically been made.

There's an apt sketch of our nation right now. Cruising down the road, aiming at the big election coming up at the next exit. So where shall we head for dinner?

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Problem is, of course, that we're only pretending when we discuss our dinner choices. President Obama was only pretending when he grandly proposed in his speech at the Democratic convention that America should deploy 100,000 new math and science teachers so we can compete more effectively with students from other countries. The fact is that we can't afford the teachers we've got.

And Mitt Romney was only pretending when he assured everyone that he, like Obama, favors a healthcare plan that guarantees no one will ever be denied coverage because of some pesky preexisting condition. The fact is that we can't afford the coverage we've got.

Like a bunch of kids in the back of the van, we've allowed the debate to focus on what we're going to be having for dinner—when in fact the real discussion ought to be about whether there's even going to be any dinner. We're all just pretending. And it doesn't help that neither Mom nor Dad seems ready and willing to level with us. The one person in this whole scenario who's worst off is the one who's broke, but pretends otherwise. He goes sailing down the highway, oblivious to his destitute condition, but salivating over every possibility that's called to his attention.

It's a natural part of the political process, I guess, to focus on the goodies, and to engage in endless promises and counter-promises over whose goodies—Candidate A's or Candidate B's—are best conceived and best packaged. But what if neither A nor B has a chance of ever seeing his programs come to pass?

Here's an exercise to help you visualize things. Find a supply of dollar bills (no Monopoly money!) and stack them up until your pile is one inch high. You should be looking at about $200. Increase the stack to 10 inches, and it should grow in value to about $2,000. If you grow it to 250 inches—about the height of a two-story house—you're looking at $50,000, which was the median income of all American households last year. Those are figures all of us can comprehend, even if it takes a little stretching.

But we're in a time when so much is no longer comprehensible. By the same standard—where one inch accounts for $200—our national debt has become a super skyscraper towering at an unimaginable 1.1 million miles next door to that two-story house representing a typical family's annual income. OK. So it's agreed that just one family isn't responsible for the whole debt. But divide the total by a hundred million households, and each family will still be looking at a seven- or eight-story "national debt" building right next door.

Apples and oranges? Making the wrong comparison? Mixing my metaphors?

That's my very point. When someone's as destitute as Uncle Sam is right now, most of us can't even think straight about what we can afford and what we can't. We're incompetent to do the long division and multiplication involving so many zeroes. We keep talking, and thinking, as if we'll actually have a choice when we look at the menu. But we keep forgetting, as we head for the restaurant door, that our collective pockets are all but empty.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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