As the edge of the fiscal cliff approaches and then recedes, like an imagined desert isle appearing and disappearing admit the waves, the process that has brought America into the tyranny of debt goes on. The national debt, like our annual deficits, is a symptom of the true problem.
Irresponsible behavior is a symptom of irresponsible thinking. Bad choices come from the failure to understand consequences. Power is not just an aphrodisiac, it numbs one to the understanding that there even are consequences.
The centers of people in a nation are the last to feel the cold and their decisions are insulated from their consequences by power and comfort. Even as they warn about the danger, they are too far away from it to truly feel it. It is a shadow to them. An idea. Not a reality.
To the powerful, power is the only reality. And the limits of their own power are unknown to them. The possession of power is a constraint that prevents the possessor from seeing its limits.
We live in a world that has lost touch with the very idea of hard choices. That even in the richest and most prosperous country in the world, you still have to choose one or the other. That you can’t have you cake and eat it too. But as the hard edges of reason have blurred into the haze of wishful thinking, the idea of mutually incompatible choices also fades away. Soon there are no choices, only options.
Our government has vanished into that haze. A haze in which our leaders actually believe that we can be tough and kind, strong and beloved and spending as much as we want without worrying about where it’s coming from. The haze extends to our policies which assume that we can win wars without offending anyone, and spend as much money as we want without recouping it in some way. In a system built on a two party stalemates usually broken by compromises, it’s all too easy to believe that you can give and take, without ever having to choose. One or the other.
A country whose leadership does not understand the concept of mutually incompatible choices is doomed to have its political structure decay into tyranny and its economy stagnate and finally collapse. Without the understanding that some choices are hard and fast things, success becomes impossible. When you think that you can do everything, you end up being unable to do anything. When every option is on the table, then no option is on the table. And if the political leadership cannot make those choices, then it will be replaced by another form of leadership that will solve the problem with tyranny. This has happened before. And it will happen again.
The Middle East presents us with the troubling sight of an entire region run by people who are unable to make such absolute distinctions. Princes, sheiks and prime ministers pursue mutually incompatible policies at the same time, make contradictory assertions and often remain unaware that their actions are contradictory. In a region that is outside the territory of reason, everything is always on the table. There is no truth, only layers of lies. Push far enough down and you come away with nothing but hot air. The popularity of Islam as a political solution is due in part to the perception that it represents an absolute certainty. An anchor in a turbulent sandy sea. Not an intellectual anchor of reason, but of fanatical force. The comfort of the thoughtless tyranny of power.
But the West has been headed out of the territory of reason for some time now. Its truths have become ideological beliefs. Its goals have become the self-worship of its own symbols, size for the sake of size, and centralization for the sake of centralization. There is a mingled horror and longing for the savage and the barbaric, as civilization appears to have lost its meaning. The leadership cries “Onward to a united world” on the one hand, and “Back to the caves” on the other. That confused melange boils down to a cultural intelligence which has lost the awareness of its own contradictions. High tech environmentalism, soft wars and valueless money are all symptoms of that same intellectual degeneracy.
The rise of China is directly tied to our own irrationality. The People’s Republic of China has become rich and powerful by serving as the reservoir of our contradictions. We wanted cheap products, no pollution, high wages and generous benefits. All these things are not compatible, so we outsourced our manufacturing to China and pretended that we could have it all. But all we got were cheap products, and the country we outsourced them to got the jobs and the national prosperity. We wanted to spend money without worrying about where it came from. Again we turned to China. And like the grasshopper and the ant, we sang and played all summer, while the ants worked and prepared for the winter.
We used China to escape the limits of reality, but there is no escape. Only temporary vacations from consequences. The PRC has made its own choices. It has chosen to compromise the lives of its people in order to amass wealth and industry by selling our own knickknack designs back to us. Now a generation of Chinese is preparing to reap the harvest of that industry. While we are in debt to that same industry. In debt to the banks who loan us the money with which we buy Chinese products and the government which collects taxes in order to repay China for the entitlement programs. And the banks are in debt to the government which bailed them out with China’s money. And the government is in debt to China.
The People’s Republic of China is no model of reason, but it understands choices better than we do. It left Communism behind in all but name, in order to gain wealth and power. And we left our wealth and power behind in all but name, in order to gain Communism. Without ever admitting it to ourselves, we traded a system that worked for one that didn’t. And our leaders used a Communist country to lessen the immediate pain of the transition. But what our leaders treated as waste products, manufacturing jobs and heavy industry, helped turn China into a superpower. We thought that we could have everything, the best of both worlds, cheap products and only high paying jobs or subsidized unemployment. And by believing that, we lost both the jobs and the products will follow once the PRC no longer needs to needs to keep its currency artificially low.
There is no such thing as too big to fail. Size only serves as a delaying factor. The bigger they are, the slower they fall. But they also fall harder. And size also dulls the speed of the response. The more space there is between the outer regions and the inner controlling sector, the slower the system is to respond to a crisis. We’re not too big to fail. We’re failing so slowly that it’s hard to see from the inside.
It comes down to choice again. If we’re going to escape from this trap that we have set for ourselves, then we’re going to make sacrifices. And our political system is poorly adapted to making sacrifices. The system we have is based on everyone getting what they want. On short term satisfaction over long term solutions. Plenty of Americans are out of work or living hand to mouth, but that deprivation doesn’t translate to the centers of power. Which means that the kind of slashing spree being practiced by Cameron in the UK is unlikely to happen here. Democrats have conniption fits over much smaller proposals, and an alliance between conservatives and the left that slashes government spending to the bone is still virtually inconceivable here.
But we can’t afford to keep going the way we are. We are deep in debt and spending money that we don’t have. And we’re doing it because our system is built on spending money, not on saving money.
In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed that, “One of the greatest favors that can be bestowed upon the American people is economy in government“. He warned about “the stupendous sum of about 7 billion, 500 million dollars” that is taken from Americans. Today 7 billion dollars wouldn’t cover a day in the operation of the Federal government. If things keep going as they are, we might come to look upon the “stupendous” sum of 6 trillion dollars discussed now as equally minute. But it is not likely that day will ever come, because the camel’s back is too close to breaking under the strain.
To save ourselves we must return to the territory of reason and make the difficult choices that must be made. It is too easy to fall into the haze of thinking that we don’t really need to make such choices. That we can go on the way we have. And the world is full of cautionary examples of fallen civilizations that lost touch with those decisions and accordingly faded out of history.
The ability to perceive and make difficult choices is fundamental to the survival of a country. We used to be able to make those choices. Otherwise we will be anotherRepublic of Ozymandias, a civilization lost through its own ineptitude, a monument to the knowledge that there is no free lunch, only the wages of difficult choices.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century. He blogs at Sultan Knish.