What makes budget trimming so difficult is that Congressional benefits of bulletproof incumbency are local while negative consequences of growing debt are widespread, easy to blamelessly sidestep, and for many, difficult to see and understand. During the 1930s, Hoovervilles were undeniable evidence that extraordinary measures were necessary to prevent a total economic collapse. However, unlike the financial failure of eighty years ago, the wolf is less visible at our door. Because of this, few recognize impending disaster. And while “what me worry” myopia from Alfred E. Neumann’s economic playbook led to calamity in 1929, eight decades later such blindness threatens a repeat performance.
Although there is still debate over how catastrophic the ongoing hemorrhage of red ink will be, the immediate question is what to do about it. Typically, Republicans favor decreased spending while Democrats support increased taxation from a privileged class seen as callously indifferent to the economic plight of those less fortunate. Yet however blind to suffering the affluent may actually be, the indisputable fact is such speculation is unsupported by an upper class tax burden in which the top 10% of earners contribute over 70% of all federal tax revenues while the bottom half contribute less than 3%. And while fashionable to claim that in loopholes and tax cuts the rich get something for nothing, the only people getting something for nothing are the 71 million adult Americans federally benefiting from defense, public safety, education, and infrastructure repair, who contribute nothing to their maintenance.
Current tax inequities and the impending fiscal disaster notwithstanding, unless the public views champagne tastes and beer pocketbooks as much a public problem as a personal one, federal debt will continue to grow. And unless this realization results in overwhelming constituent pressure for Congress to break the cycle of taxing much and spending more, such folly will continue as a tragedy and an irony: a tragedy because the wolf is already at our door and an irony because in the two hundredth and thirty- fourth year of our republic, we have increasingly become captive not to foreign invaders but to ourselves.
Neil Bright is a professor of American government and psychology, who lives in New York State.
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