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America’s March of Folly

The budget deficits from the first two years of the Obama administration are of sufficient magnitude to spring Dr. “Billions and Billions” Carl Sagan from his grave. Sagan could sue for copyright infringement for misuse of astronomical numbers.

On second thought, the figures now being bandied about are in the trillions, which no doubt would send the venerable atheist skulking back, perhaps muttering something about the “unsustainability” of it all.

Sagan would not be alone. Multi-trillion dollar deficits that generate debt obligations in the hundreds of trillions of dollars cannot continue even in the short run, at least not without that Fifth Horseman of Apocalypse—picture Darth Vader toting a wheel barrow filled with worthless script—showing up to hiss questions about the insanity of those who led America on its “March of Folly.”

Barbara Tuchman wondered the same thing in a book published with that name, in which she probed the mentalities and policies of political leaders who led their countries to destruction — and here’s the kicker — fully aware of what they were doing but not willing to stop themselves from doing it. More specifically, averred Tuchman, to qualify as “folly” a policy: 1) “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight;” 2) “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available,” and; 3) that alternative must have been in existence beyond the life of a single individual and recommended over time by significant political opposition.

By these criteria, the Renaissance popes, British government during the American Revolution, American presidents during the Vietnam War era, and several others as well, all get skewered, and rightly so. Their failures can all be explained by their “perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable or counterproductive.” To put the matter more colorfully, the leaders that Tuchman covered were lamentably immersed in “wooden-headedness, the source of self-deception.”

Echoes of wooden-headedness resound throughout history, from Trojans taking the wooden horse within their walls to current administration officials who continue to insist that the stimulus worked, the country is on the road to economic recovery, and Americans will learn to love a 2,300-page piece of legislation that few read and nobody understands. Lest Republicans feel too smug about Democrats’ current discomfort, they should be reminded that one of their own, George W. Bush, put his signature to a law roughly half that size — the 2003 Medicare Drug Benefit — and even that most iconic of Republican leaders, Ronald Reagan, still failed to produce a balanced budget, even during times of prosperity.

Which means that wooden-headedness transcends time, place, and partisanship, and further that if “eating crow” means being forced to acknowledge one’s own errors, then that repulsive bird should replace bean soup on the Senate’s famed menu, at least until members of both parties in each chamber acknowledge that they have often marched on the road of folly holding each others’ hands, and that we’re all in this together.

Indeed, all Americans have to be, if one is to take recent CBO estimates seriously, which mean that unless America stops its march of folly, federal government spending will go beyond that region where even the expression “out of control” still makes any sense. The CBO March 2011 report indicated that for the 40 years prior to Obama’s election, federal deficits averaged around 35 percent of the country’s annual GDP; that number rose to 62 percent by the end of 2011, the highest level since the end of World War II. Absent significant policy changes, that percentage will climb to 87 percent over the course of the next decade, reflecting an additional $9.5 trillion in debt.

Certainly the attention devoted to this subject over the past few years has been huge, but as Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff point out in their excellent treatment, This Time Is Different, these numbers reflect conditions that kill countries. Indeed, instead of treating the greatest country on earth like a pampered and suicidal adolescent, American leaders must grasp that nations crumble under such debt; nations and empires and entire civilizations. Further, viable alternatives have been offered as well, including those advocated by a bipartisan Senate group as well as those from the president’s own debt commission, and most recently, by Congressman Paul Ryan.

So, what is the solution? Honesty and courage. Honesty on the part of our political leaders to explain America’s perilous situation and courage to do something about it, regardless of consequences to their own political careers, or even to their lives. Both traits were illustrated in a marvelous vignette recounted by Joseph Ellis in his Founding Brothers. After signing the document that pitted the newly proclaimed country against the most formidable world power the world had ever known, Benjamin Harrison quipped to Elbridge Gerry that his size and weight gave him a greater advantage over his smaller colleague, in that when they were all hung for treason, the corpulent Mr. Harrison “would die in a few minutes,” whereas the lighter Mr. Gerry would “dance in the air an hour or two before [he is] dead.”

These men were honest about the stakes involved, which they faced with resolution and courage and, if necessary, their lives. Today’s circumstances require no less.


Marvin Folkertsma, Ph.D. is a professor of political science and Fellow for American Studies with the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is the author of several books. His latest release is a high-energy novel titled The Thirteenth Commandment .
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  • It’s going to take a calamity of some kind (like Japan’s earthquake), either a natural disaster that we can’t pay for, or China calling its markers, or default in some other way before anything gets done about our debt.

    Americans are worried, but nobody seems to know what to do about the problem, with the possible exception of the Tea Party. And the Tea Party is a small minority too easily portrayed as right-wing kooks in the media.

    Each of us Americans needs to take ownership of the problem. The thing is, I don’t know what to do next, except wait and see; it’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck. These days, I actually get anxiety in my stomach when I see what’s going on in our country and the world.

    Happily, nothing is too big for God. I’m not worried for myself or my family; we’ll find a way together. It’s just that this is not the same country I grew up in in the 70’s and 80’s. But God works through it all, to accomplish His purposes. Pray to Our Lady, Patroness of the U.S.A., for her help.

  • goral

    Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
    for according to his own words,
    God will take care of him.
    These were their thoughts, but they erred;
    for their wickedness blinded them,
    and they knew not the hidden counsels of God; (Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom)

    Our nation now is being condemned to a shameful death.
    All who are doing it are either irresponsible, blinded or wicked. We can see that reasonable discourse has proven futile as those who can do something about the billions and trillions reject all warnings and reasonableness.

    The illegitimate regime in power now actually wants calamity because in that environment the Constitution is overridden by Executive orders, stop gaps, crisis management and extraordinary measures.

    Secure the produce garden and chickens and goats and put our trust in the Lord. We will get through this.