Monday, April 5, 2010

Fiscal Responsibility and Incremental Change

"The legitimate debate is whether we borrow and steal from our kids or we get out of town and send the bill to our kids for something that we're going to consume today."

This is what Senator Coburn (R-OK) said to justify singlehandedly cutting off unemployment benefits to thousands of Americans until the Senate made a greater commitment to Sen. Coburn's conception of fiscal responsibility. There is something profoundly ironic about this statement.

(I'm a little hesitant to use Senator Coburn as a proxy for the entire Republican Party, but the sentiment he expressed here is a talking point that was widely used during the "debate" on healthcare, and continues to be a big part of the GOP's anti-government rhetoric, so I don't think it's terribly problematic to do so in this context.)

As much as it's possible to ascribe an ideology to today's GOP, it seems to be focused on sending legislators to Washington to make sure that the government does nothing. The idea here seems to be that doing nothing and never spending money is fiscally responsible.

But doing nothing is not free, and not spending money when it needs to be spent is the opposite of fiscal responsibility. Ultimately, every choice has a cost, and somebody always has to pay for it. Sen. Coburn's statement is ironic because he accuses the Democrats of doing exactly what seems to constitute the GOP's entire modus operandi these days: making the cheap, easy choice in the short term, while punting the expensive, difficult choice down the road for future generations to deal with.

This was the Bush administration in Afghanistan. For seven years, American troops were there without a clear mission, in insufficient numbers to accomplish much of anything, waging a war that was not paid for. By contrast, President Obama has made the difficult decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops and adopt an aggressive strategy that will undoubtedly carry a high cost both in American lives and money.

Why? Because allowing medieval-minded thugs to shelter our worst enemies deep in Central Asia is an unacceptable alternative. The cost of doing nothing is too high.

The same is true of climate change. In the face of scientific uncertainty, but where the potential consequences of being wrong are huge, the responsible choice would seem to be erring on the side of safety (see Pascal's Wager). Yet again, the GOP opted for the cheap and easy choice, avoiding the policies that would impose short-term costs and postponing an overhaul of our infrastructure that would lead to long-term benefit. Once again, President Obama has an ambitious and expensive vision of where the country needs to go. It will cost money - a lot of money, in fact - but it is ultimately the better choice.

Why? Best case scenario: because while we wait, China is surging ahead of us, and we are losing valuable competitive ground to a rival power. Worst case scenario: because Al Gore is right and at some point in the future either we, or our children, or our descendants, will have to deal with the mass of interrelated crises that will stem from climate change. Again, the cost of doing nothing is too high.

There is always a cost, even when you do do nothing. These are just two examples of a general attitude that favors punting the costs down the road, rather than making prudent investments in the future.

Politico recently reported on the fairly hostile reception that Representative Paul Hodes (D-NH) received from Carmen Guimond when he returned home to meet with constituents. The story describes how Ms. Guimond, an elderly woman at a seniors' home, refused to shake the hand of Rep. Hodes, because he voted for the healthcare bill. When Rep. Hodes tried to explain to her the specific benefits that the bill would deliver by 2020, she replied, "We'll all be dead by then."

(I mention Ms. Guimond by name mostly for ease of reference, not to unduly pick on her. Her views on the healthcare bill are no doubt shared by many, and I hope that it's clear that I am taking issue with the view she's espoused, not singling an elderly woman out for ridicule. But it's rare that a political truth is stated as succinctly and as aptly as this one.)

On one hand, it is hard to fault Ms. Guimond for being unenthusiastic about a bill that doesn't promise immediate benefits to her. Yet on the other hand, I have no trouble faulting her for being hostile towards it. "We'll all be dead by then" is not a philosophy that leads to good government. It is, in fact, a selfish and disastrously short-sighted attitude. Where would Ms. Guimond, or any of us, be today, if American statesmen had spent the last two hundred and forty years refusing to consider a timeline that extended any further than the span of their own lives?

Fiscal responsibility and incremental change are two major planks in the Republican platform. I firmly believe that there is value in these principles. I agree that money ought to be spent responsibly or not at all. Personally, I am fairly open to non-incremental change, but the concept that we ought not be too hasty and should think hard about the consequences when adopting new policies is certainly valid and ought to inform the decisions of our legislators.

Yet today's Republican Party has arrived at extremely narrow definitions of these terms. Fiscal responsibility seems to have come to mean "basically never, ever spending money on anything." And incremental change seems to mean "postponing tough choices until we are dead and leaving these problems to another generation." Sen. Coburn exemplifies the former, while Ms. Guimond exemplifies the latter. Incremental change is in the driver's seat, and fiscal responsibility is the argument advanced to kneecap policies that might threaten the status quo.

Construing these terms in this fashion renders them little more than arguments advanced after the fact to justify unflinching support of the status quo and hostility to change, rather than actual first principles upon which to build a philosophy of government. In its present state, then, the GOP has surprisingly little to bring to the table in terms of substantively informing the dialogue over what course our country ought to take.

All this being said, I'm going to end this post on an optimistic note. The current political situation cannot remain in its present state for long. As I mentioned in a previous post, American history has a momentum that tends to knock things down if they try to stand still for too long. We didn't get to where we are today by refusing to change when the circumstances required us to. A confluence of forces brought the Republican Party to its present condition, and those forces will ultimately run their course. Things might get worse before they get better, but I am confident that sooner or later the GOP will reconstitute itself as a party that actively seeks to shape this country's future, rather than clinging stubbornly to its past. When that day comes, we will all be better off.


  1. Exactly the same discussion about cuts in spending here in the Netherlands, the 'stealing from the next generation and our children argument' is put forward and next thing they want is a cut in educational spending, which is another way of stealing from a next generation if you already have enjoyed education. Often it is just an argument in disguise for we do not want any spending at all.

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