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National debt not greatest challenge facing the country

“…that if everyone retains inflexibly his present opinion, there will be no bill passed at all for funding the public debts, and …without funding there is an end of the government.”


That is as accurate an account of the intractable nature of the U.S. Congress’ current position on fiscal matters as I have read anywhere. Inflexible positions means no one is willing to compromise; no one is willing to admit that someone else might have an idea worth considering; and no one can fathom that another legislator might have a solution to the quagmire that seems constantly to bog down Congressional action.

It was written in 1790 by Thomas Jefferson during a time when the country faced a real financial crisis, a crisis that threatened not just a bit of financial hardship, not just some inconvenience for the stock market or some discomfort for legislators who were vying for power in the new republic, but a crisis that threatened the stability, possibly even the survival, of the United States of America.

I read that line, among others that seem almost as pertinent today as they did in the early years of our democracy, in a new biography of Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham. I recommend it to anyone who has even the least interest in history and in the growing pains that came with creating what we now consider the greatest country on earth.

Jefferson, and others, feared that forces inside and outside the country favored a return to some form of hereditary leadership—a monarchy. He feared that Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, was one of these. Jefferson, at the time, was serving at the country’s first Secretary of State. He held strong beliefs. But he also understood and used the power of compromise. His ability to bring disparate opinions into, if not harmony at least acceptance, was crucial in gaining support for the Declaration of Independence, among many other actions taken by America’s early leaders.

We survived. We avoided that fiscal cliff, which was considerably steeper and significantly more hazardous than what we face today, and emerged—slowly, perhaps—into what we believe to be the leading nation of the free world.

We still face challenges, but economist Paul Krugman wrote in a recent column that America’s national debt is not the biggest challenge facing our country.  He wrote that the economy currently is not in great shape but not in terrible shape either.

“The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot,” he wrote. “Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should.”

He says the deficit is largely a factor of a depressed economy. “The deficit will come down as the economy recovers: Revenue will rise while some categories of spending, such as unemployment benefits, will fall. Indeed, that’s already happening. (And similar things are happening at the state and local levels — for example, California appears to be back in budget surplus.)

“Still, will economic recovery be enough to stabilize the fiscal outlook? The answer is, pretty much.”

Krugman says actions already taken are working and that spending cuts and tax hikes already in place will bring the budget deficit down even more.

He doesn’t indicate that the economy is as sound as it should be, only that it’s not as bad as some make it out to be.

“It’s time to focus on other stuff — like the still-depressed state of the economy and the still-terrible problem of long-term unemployment.”

He lashes out at the intractables, those who see only one solution to a complex problem and a problem that may not be as dire as some make it out to be.

Jefferson would have recommended some middle course, a compromise that would maintain the country’s ability to meet its obligations. Threatening to shut down the government would have been unthinkable.


TAGS: Legislative
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