The Orange County Register
November 9, 2012
Amid the ruin and rubble of the grey morning after, it may seem in poor taste to do anything so vulgar as plug the new and stunningly topical paperback edition of my book, "After America" – or, as Dennis Miller retitled it on the radio the other day, "Wednesday." But the business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge said long ago in an alternative universe, and I certainly could use a little. So I'm going to be vulgar and plug away. The central question of "Wednesday" – I mean, "After America" – is whether the Brokest Nation In History is capable of meaningful course correction. On Tuesday, the American people answered that question. The rest of the world will make its dispositions accordingly.
In the weeks ahead, Democrats and Republicans will reach a triumphant "bipartisan" deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" through some artful bookkeeping mechanism that postpones Taxmageddon for another year, or six months, or three, when they can reach yet another triumphant deal to postpone it yet again. Harry Reid has already announced that he wants to raise the debt ceiling – or, more accurately, lower the debt abyss – by $2.4 trillion before the end of the year, and no doubt we can look forward to a spectacular "bipartisan" agreement on that, too. It took the government of the United States two centuries to rack up its first trillion dollars in debt. Now Washington piles on another trillion every nine months. Forward!
If you add up the total debt – state, local, the works – every man, woman, and child in this country owes 200 grand (which is rather more than the average Greek does). Every American family owes about three-quarters of a million bucks, or about the budget deficit of Lichtenstein, which has the highest GDP per capita in the world. Which means that HRH Prince Hans-Adam II can afford it rather more easily than Bud and Cindy at 27b Elm Street. In 2009, the Democrats became the first government in the history of the planet to establish annual trillion-dollar deficits as a permanent feature of life. Before the end of Obama's second term, the federal debt alone will hit $20 trillion. That ought to have been the central fact of this election – that Americans are the brokest brokey-broke losers who ever lived, and it's time to do something about it.
My Hillsdale College comrade Paul Rahe, while accepting much of my thesis, thought that, as an effete milquetoast pantywaist sissified foreigner, I had missed a vital distinction. As he saw it, you can take the boy out of Canada but you can't take the Canada out of the boy. I had failed to appreciate that Americans were not Euro-Canadians, and would not go gently into the statist night. But, as I note in my book, "a determined state can change the character of a people in the space of a generation or two." Tuesday's results demonstrate that, as a whole, the American electorate is trending very Euro-Canadian. True, you still have butch T-shirts – "Don't Tread On Me," "These Colors Don't Run"... In my own state, where the Democrats ran the board on Election Night, the "Live Free Or Die" license plates look very nice when you see them all lined up in the parking lot of the Social Security office. But, in their view of the state and its largesse, there's nothing very exceptional about Americans, except that they're the last to get with the program. Barack Obama ran well to the left of Bill Clinton and John Kerry, and has been rewarded for it both by his party's victory and by the reflex urgings of the usual GOP experts that the Republican Party needs to "moderate" its brand.
I have no interest in the traditional straw clutching – oh, it was the weak candidate... hard to knock off an incumbent... next time we'll have a better GOTV operation in Colorado... I'm always struck, if one chances to be with a GOP insider when a new poll rolls off the wire, that their first reaction is to query whether it's of "likely" voters or merely "registered" voters. As the consultant class knows, registered voters skew more Democrat than likely voters, and polls of "all adults" skew more Democrat still. Hence the preoccupation with turnout models. In other words, if America had compulsory voting as Australia does, the Republicans would lose every time. In Oz, there's no turnout model, because everyone turns out. The turnout-model obsession is an implicit acknowledgment of an awkward truth – that, outside the voting booth, the default setting of American society is ever more liberal and statist.
The short version of electoral cycles is as follows: the low-turnout midterms are fought in political terms, and thus Republicans do well and sometimes spectacularly well (1994, 2010); the higher-turnout presidential elections are fought in broader cultural terms, and Republicans do poorly, because they've ceded most of the cultural space to the other side. What's more likely to determine the course of your nation's destiny? A narrow focus on robocalls in selected Florida and New Hampshire counties every other fall? Or determining how all the great questions are framed from the classroom to the iPod to the movie screen in the 729 days between elections?
The good news is that reality (to use a quaint expression) doesn't need to swing a couple of thousand soccer moms in northern Virginia. Reality doesn't need to crack 270 in the Electoral College. Reality can get 1.3 percent of the popular vote and still trump everything else. In the course of his first term, Obama increased the federal debt by just shy of $6 trillion and, in return, grew the economy by $905 billion. So, as Lance Roberts at Street Talk Live pointed out, in order to generate every $1 of economic growth the United States had to borrow about $5.60. There's no one out there on the planet – whether it's "the rich" or the Chinese – who can afford to carry on bankrolling that rate of return. According to one CBO analysis, US government spending is sustainable as long as the rest of the world is prepared to sink 19 percent of its GDP into U.S. Treasury debt. We already know the answer to that: In order to avoid the public humiliation of a failed bond auction, the U.S. Treasury sells 70 percent of the debt it issues to the Federal Reserve – which is to say the left hand of the U.S. government is borrowing money from the right hand of the U.S. government. It's government as a Nigerian email scam, with Ben Bernanke playing the role of the dictator's widow with $4 trillion under her bed that she's willing to wire to Timmy Geithner as soon as he sends her his bank account details.
If that's all a bit too technical, here's the gist: There's nothing holding the joint up.
So, Washington cannot be saved from itself. For the moment, tend to your state, and county, town and school district, and demonstrate the virtues of responsible self-government at the local level. Americans as a whole have joined the rest of the Western world in voting themselves a lifestyle they are not willing to earn. The longer any course correction is postponed the more convulsive it will be. Alas, on Tuesday, the electorate opted to defer it for another four years. I doubt they'll get that long.