National Debt Should Not Be Ignored

He did not like the question very much. Last Wednesday afternoon, at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation’s summit on fiscal responsibility, I asked Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, whether unemployment would have to rise even further for the country to see our long-term economic challenges as a true, rather than a theoretical, crisis. Orszag winced slightly, which speaks well of him as a human being: it would be morally reprehensible to wish more people the pain of joblessness. “The unemployment rate seems pretty high to me,” he said, “and the share of the unemployed who are long-term unemployed is also quite elevated.”

He is right, of course, but the question was really about the nation’s collective moral responsibility, and why it is that we are so fundamentally averse to making difficult decisions. Experience tells us again and again that Americans tend to summon the will to reform themselves only when things are so miserable that it seems the center cannot hold. FDR passed Social Security and much of the New Deal social legislation when unemployment was above 20 percent; civil- and voting-rights bills were successful only after the publication and broadcast of images of the courage of African-Americans enduring white violence and degradation. The legacy of the 2008–09 meltdown is still taking shape, but it appears safe to say that the atmosphere of anxiety that prevailed from the autumn of 2008 through, say, the beginning of this year is unlikely to produce reform on a scale comparable to the New Deal.

I think progressives understand this and may be starting to make some peace with it, however reluctantly. It is, unsurprisingly, conservatives who continue to act as though Barack Obama is the last surviving member of the Politburo. It serves the right’s interests to perpetuate that argument: opposition is often a political winner, at least in the short term. The problem for Republicans can be summed up in an old saying attributed to Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House from Texas. It takes a carpenter to build a barn, Speaker Sam was said to have observed, but any jackass can kick one down.

The issues facing us are, as ever, daunting. Peterson, a longtime advocate for fiscal discipline, worries that we are spending ourselves into oblivion, amassing debts we cannot possibly repay and incurring generational obligations through entitlements that will cripple our capacity to invest and innovate. Former president Bill Clinton, who spoke at the summit, said that foreign countries hold such a large percentage of America’s debt that it is now an issue of “national sovereignty.”

The problem for the administration is that, for all the pain so many are feeling, the economic challenges remain abstract for many Americans, especially those who are well off and who are now seeing their 401(k) accounts gradually grow again. The populist energy is not on the left but on the right, and the moment seems to belong to plutocrats more than it does to the unconnected.

On the New Deal, FDR had massive unemployment and the Bonus Army disaster, and on civil rights, JFK and LBJ had Bull Connor. In trying to come up with contrary examples to my thesis that we undertake fundamental reform only in hours of dramatic, widely felt crisis, I began to think about Johnson’s passage of Medicare and the other elements of the Great Society. The 1964–65 period was not like the 1930s, and John Lewis and Hosea Williams were not marching from Selma to Montgomery for Medicare.

After the conversation with Orszag, I called my old boss Charles Peters, who worked in the Peace Corps in the 1960s and has just finished a new biography of LBJ. He reminded me that, actually, there had been an enveloping sense of crisis in those two years. “No historian can overestimate the level of the emotion of the Kennedy factor after the assassination,” Peters said. “People wanted to enact the reform program that they thought JFK was for, even if he may not have in fact been as passionate about these issues as Johnson was.” Even Medicare, then, was at least partly the result of an extraordinary period of pain in the country.

It should not take such convulsions for us to do the right thing, and so Obama is left to do what he has been doing: plugging away in the sincere belief that you take what you can get. The irony we must live with is that in staving off disaster we also make it more difficult to do big things.