Kicking the Can

At Vox’s, someone quoted Adam Smith on the question of governments cutting spending to pay down debt.  It was getting a touch off-topic there, and I needed a post here, so I’m riffing on it here:

When national debts have been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, but always by a real one, though frequently by a pretended payment. — The Wealth of Nations

I can’t imagine this time being any different. I’d say the chance of an orderly reduction in government spending and debt is somewhat less than zero. These are people who screamed bloody murder at the idea of defunding PBS, even while insisting that PBS’s government funding was only 5% of its budget, too small to affect it or the taxpayers. They won’t cut even the spending that they themselves insist isn’t necessary.

No, they’ll go on kicking the can down the road, and most citizens will go right along with them, hoping that a tech breakthrough or a war or some other miracle will come along and save us from ourselves.

I have a retired friend whose state pension is now in jeopardy (at least that’s the scare tactic that was used during the election, but with the state approaching bankruptcy, it may be true). This man has voted Democrat his entire life, supported the Party, and worked his entire career for the state. Now in his 70s, he suddenly fears the pension that he worked for all those years (including many years under Republican bosses he despised) might not be safe. Is that fair? Of course not. He was promised that pension as part of his compensation, and he earned it. But if the money isn’t there — and if it’s not there because people like him voted for every spending program under the sun — whose fault is that? If the money is gone, is fairness even relevant anymore?

That’s the thing that strikes me: when you talk about spending, Americans still bring up objections based on fairness or compassion because they still believe that, when push comes to shove, we’ll be able to come up with the money from somewhere. And if the money is ultimately available, then there’s no need for unfairness or unkindness. Very few people are even close to facing the possibility that the money just isn’t there — and that we won’t be able to put our noses to the grindstone and produce it at the last minute, like churning out tanks for WWII.

I really think that’s what most middle-Americans expect, especially the older ones: that there’s a reservoir of wealth or productivity that’s untapped, and when we really need it, we’ll crack it open and be fine.  We’ll invent new things, or build new factories, or tax the rich more, and we’ll be covered.  We may not know what the solution is, but we’ll find it when we have to. One thing you can say for Americans: we have faith in our ability to cover our asses.

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4 thoughts on “Kicking the Can

  1. The money is not going to be there. Our standard of living has been falling to equilibrium with the rest of the world for several decades now, especially for everyone but the elites. My generation as a group will easily not realize the average standard of living my parents did, and the decline will continue further for my kids.

    I envision that we will return, out of necessity, to extended families as all of our social welfare programs are going to collapse under their own weight. First, though, will come the most rapacious expropriation of personal wealth by government the world has ever seen when the 401K’s held by the comparative few are seized to fund the have nots.

  2. I can foresee the day when semi-retirees (not enough money to retire) – making $30K per year on salaries and very modest retirement savings – are taxed at north of 50% to pay for the triple-digit lifetime pensions of government retirees.

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