Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Our seed-corn squanderers

Uh, oh. Here they come with charts, ominous charts — as scary as the times. In lines of red: deficits, crippling deficits, unconscionable deficits, the Obama deficits.

The speakers pace back and forth, pointers pecking. And I'm wondering:

Where were these birds the same time last year? Likely they were clucking about how the Bush deficits were insignificant as a portion of the GDP. Or they were saying that whatever the cumulative and long-range price, it was all the "cost of freedom."

Right now, our feathered friends are doing an exceedingly good job stating the obvious:

Just as we did when we financed two wars simultaneously amid round after round of tax cuts, we are borrowing to pay for the federal stimulus package hammered out by President Obama and Congress.

Any way you look at it, we're talking a lot of money foisted onto future Americans. That is not good.

But observe a stark difference: The borrowing that preceded Obama didn't correspond to an economy in the tank, to 13 million people without jobs.

It was borrowing rain or shine, bubble or fizzle, gallop or shuffle. Every step of the way, the federal government was painting itself into a narrower corner with blue-sky tax policies and blank-check spending initiatives for the military.

Yes, some in the flock denounced this. Others saw it as part of the continued process of starving government into submission, Reagan-style. Deficit by design.

So, whadya know? A real, honest-to-Steinbeck, grapes-of-wrath calamity has befallen our land, the type that screams out for an activist government, the type that put FDR in our hearts and on our dimes.

We can all argue about what vehicles the Obama administration chose for its fiscal activism. We can argue about the efficacy of its tax cuts. (Is having $18 more in one's paycheck really a job-producer?)

But, get real. This crisis calls for bold action. Indeed, a growing list of economists is accusing Obama of being too meek.

I'm thinking: Surely we knew such a day would happen, that the economy would tank. Back when the sun was shining and the fields were brimming, and we could have acted with smarts and long-range acuity, who let these birds consume our seed corn?

We are paying for attitudes that put the next earnings quarter and the next election cycle ahead of long-range concerns.

Among those concerns: highways, health care, levees to hold against flood tide, schools saddled with mandates but not the dollars to execute them.

Ronald Reagan said government is the problem. As Katrina is our witness, we inspired a generation of leaders to make his words prophetic.

They will denounce "pork"— earmarks, for instance, all of 2 percent of the discretionary budget. They'll denounce foreign aid (4 percent). Point out that even without the off-budget costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is 59 percent of the discretionary budget, and . . .? They'll change the subject.

But back to the subject of deficits: Now, we're told, they are despicable, irresponsible. This time last year? They were the American way.

John Young's column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail: jyoung@wacotrib.com.

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