Our government in Washington has made $88.6 trillion in promises it cannot afford to keep. By some reliable estimates, the national debt will become unsustainable by 2037. Social Security expenditures are beginning to exceed payroll tax revenues. Medicare has been in this condition since 2008. The annual federal budget deficit is almost as large the early Clinton-era federal budget. Some state governments are, pace the columnist E.J. Dionne, literally bankrupt.
How then do our leaders respond? With "austerity" measures that barely cut any spending and add trillions to the debt. Others assert that the shortfalls are simply the consequence of the recession. Ergo, we should spend our way out of the recession. Consider it borrowing our way out of debt. But the biggest problem is not the political class's innumeracy. It's their lack of restraint. Presented with a problem, they are seized with the uncontrollable urge to "Do Something," without knowing how that something will be paid for, whether it will work, or what the consequences will be.
Are there older Americans who must board buses to Canada in order to fill their prescriptions? Then we must pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit, even if it is not paid for and boosts the original entitlement's already staggering unfunded liabilities to the tune of trillions. Are there people out of work? We must have a stimulus program, even if it is not paid for and there is debate over whether it could even work at a conceptual level.
Sometimes, the beneficiaries of federal benevolence need not even be American voters. In response to the humanitarian crisis being inflicted on Libya by its undeniably brutal dictator, Washington interventionists cry out for a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over the country. This despite the fact that there is no consensus the no-fly zone will work, no real plan for what we would do if it failed, no idea of who would be empowered in the event of its success, and no clear constitutional mandate to be behaving as a world government in embryo.
In each of the above examples, the problem being described is very real. But the "solutions" are often half-baked.
On Libya, the coalition of the willing among the politicians and pundits is eerily familiar. Writes the columnist Ross Douthat, "Indeed, it's striking how quickly the bipartisan coalition that backed the Iraq invasion has reassembled itself to urge President Obama to use military force against Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi." The band has gotten back together in time for another march to war.
If Obama heeds their advice and things go badly, he should expect the Republican hawks to abandon him as quickly as the pro-war Democrats and liberal interventionists turned against George W. Bush on Iraq. Remember that Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards were among those who voted with Bush before the going got tough -- and the poll numbers went south.
The political class is slow to learn from its mistakes because it refuses to acknowledge them. According to one or both major parties, the Iraq adventure, the Wall Street bailout, the stimulus package, the monetary policies that helped inflate the housing bubble, and virtually every major federal undertaking with the possible exception of Prohibition were smashing successes. And maybe even Prohibition, like communism, would have worked if only the right people had been in charge.
So it should come as no surprise that we hear people insisting that the government isn't broke, Social Security is just fine, Medicare is but one Obamacare away from being placed on a more secure financial footing. The politician who wishes to "Do Something" can do no wrong. Or if something does go wrong, another politician or party can be blamed later on.
The problem isn't just a matter of money. The larger crisis is due to a federal government without limit, led by people with a faith in their infinite capacity for problem-solving matched only by their mind-numbing obliviousness to their myriad failures. On the rare occasions they are confronted with those failures, our political masters can only promise that things will be different this time.
Many a failed relationship has been revived by such promises, which frequently serve as a prelude to additional pain and disappointment. It's a cliché that second marriages represent the triumph of hope over experience. The country's present condition represents the triumph of Hope and Change over the Constitution.