Rahm Emanuel, once President Obama’s chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago, told corporate executives in 2008, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before."
That quote has been used to criticize Emanuel, but it’s often certainly been true for this democracy. When something is merely a big problem, action can be delayed even if that delay causes great harm in the future. A crisis, however, demands a response. The country didn’t get involved in World War II until Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, and it didn’t really get serious about the space race until the Russians took the lead.
Human nature is like that, too.
Today, the United States has a number of big problems that aren’t yet immediate crises, including the, ahem, little unpleasant fact that the government continues to spend far more than it collects. This past week, the Obama administration announced that the fiscal year 2013 deficit will be $759 billion. Meanwhile, the national debt – what’s been accumulating since 1835, the last time the government didn’t owe anybody anything – is now $16.7 trillion, or $53,000 for every American man, woman and child.
The national debt is what we owe; deficits are what we add each year to what we owe.
This $759 billion deficit is being treated in many quarters as good news because it’s the smallest one-year deficit in the past five years, when $1 trillion became the norm. At 4.7 percent of the gross domestic product, it’s also much smaller as a percentage of the economy than 2009’s deficit, which was 10.1 percent of GDP.
The smaller deficit is mostly a result of the improving economy, and clearly, adding trillions of dollars to our children’s credit card bills was a stimulus in the short term.
Congress also cut spending through the sequester and raised some taxes, or at least allowed them to be raised. That happened because elected officials recognized that the $1 trillion annual deficits were unsustainable, and the economy had recovered enough that the country could try to deal with them.
However, the deficits were only a big problem, not a crisis, so Congress tried to manufacture one by giving itself a deadline to act. Remember the fiscal cliff? Unfortunately, a fake crisis wasn’t enough to do the job. Congress simply nibbled around the edges of the problem instead of taking the big steps that would make it go away:
— Reforming Social Security and Medicare.
— Reducing the size of the military.
— And changing the tax code so that it generates more tax revenue while spurring economic growth.
Here’s another thing about human nature: It has a funny way of comparing things. There was a time when $759 billion would have seemed like a big problem, almost a crisis. But now that we’ve gotten used to $1 trillion, a number like $759 billion seems like good news. The pressure to act, temporarily, is gone. And now that we’ve gotten used to $1 trillion, how much will it take for that pressure to return?
Clearly, an improving economy is a good thing. People need jobs and paychecks right now, so we shouldn’t be Eeyore the donkey saying things are worse when for many, they’re better.
Neither should we be Tigger the tiger, hopping around because this year’s deficit is "only" $759 billion. That’s $2,400 in new debt for every American man, woman and child.
So it’s looking like it’s going to take a crisis – a real one, not a fake one – to fix the debt. Unless attitudes change (and maybe human nature, too), Americans will pretend the problem doesn’t exist until the country suffers the fiscal equivalent of Pearl Harbor.
That would be a shame, because even Eeyore and Tigger could agree that preventing a crisis is a lot more pleasant than responding to one.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.