FRONT PAGE CONTRIBUTOR
Spending tomorrow’s money is easy
The short explanation for the demise of Detroit is that time caught up with it. Decades of corruption built a mountain of liabilities, while scaring off the taxpayers needed to finance those promises. It’s like a movie trailer for the blockbuster disaster film to come, when America’s declining demographics catch up with the federal government’s vastly higher mountain of unfunded commitments. Detroit is the city our debt monster destroyed to get limbered up for the greater fiscal carnage to come.
Death spirals spin even faster when it’s possible for productive workers to escape. The population implosion in Detroit was swifter and more dramatic than our national workforce collapse, because it was relatively easy for citizens to escape the degenerate loop of declining municipal services and rising taxes… but in the long run, the result will be the same. There are people capable of fleeing the United States entirely, when our moment of truth arrives. Their departure will be a good sign that the Great Crash is at hand. The loss of their capital and business acumen will hasten our collapse.
We should stop the death spiral before things get bad enough for the smart money to take a powder. Of course, there were people in Detroit who said the same thing, twenty or thirty years ago. They were drowned out by a perpetual-motion political machine, which promised the good times would keep rolling forever. Even now, frantic liberals are gibbering that Republican austerity measures somehow killed Detroit, even though Democrats held absolute power for fifty years. You’ll hear the same things right before the end at the national level too. In the very near future, you’ll be told your Social Security and Medicare benefits are being cut because evil rich people don’t want to pay enough taxes to fund them. It won’t matter that there literally isn’t enough money in the entire world to cover Uncle Sam’s long-term liabilities. Anger and resentment will be milked for power until the very end. Those who do the milking will soar away from the wreckage with millions of dollars in their pockets.
Pension and benefit liabilities are really just a concentrated form of the same toxin eating away at every level of government: deficit spending. They’re just another way to spend tomorrow’s money, which is easy, because tomorrow casts very few votes in today’s elections. The people who fret over “sustainable” development at environmentalist conferences are nowhere to be found when it’s time to discuss sustainable government. Forward-thinking “progressives” are perfectly happy to be ruled by the dead hand of past entitlement promises. Those who regard the U.S. Constitution as a dead scrap of old parchment think union benefit plans are chiseled on tablets of stone.
Here’s a trick question for you: What does the government buy with its billions in deficit money? The correct answer is: commitments. Very little of that crazy deficit spending is a one-time outlay, evaporating without trace in the next fiscal year. Governments use money they don’t have to rack up long-term spending commitments, which quickly acquire human faces. Cut a million in spending, and you’ll be putting this government employee out of work, or trimming back a program that person depends on for their livelihood. Lay a finger on the pension plans of Detroit, and you’ll outrage people who are counting on those payments to finance their lengthy retirements. Promises were made. Reform is betrayal. You’ll never see a more motivated group of voters than people who believe their well-earned benefits are at risk.
Maybe the people who made all those unsustainable promises should have thought about the grim day when it would become impossible to keep them. Perhaps the outraged beneficiaries should direct their ire at the people who bought their support by making commitments that can no longer be fulfilled. But it doesn’t work that way. The people who made the unsustainable commitments are long gone. Criticizing them is living in the past. All that’s left to discuss is how today’s young people will be indentured to pay off bills they never had a chance to vote against. Fate is written one borrowed dollar at a time, and the “progressives” tell us it cannot be unwritten. We surrender control of our fate whenever we allow the government to spend money it doesn’t have. We leave our children with a hope chest full of chains.
Liberals pretend that debt is only a concern when they want to talk about tax increases. And even then, it’s not that big of a concern. They’re not interested in balancing the budget, much less paying off the mountain of debt already incurred. Skeptics are told there’s no reason to worry, we’ll always be able to borrow more money. And then the day arrives that we can’t. It happens fast. The final promises of unlimited government credit are still ringing in our ears. Contrary to the promises of charlatans, government debt is not an abstract number floating on some spreadsheet. Money cannot be printed forever. There comes a moment that the cost of financing debt abruptly explodes, and suddenly the government’s financial commitments balloon by 30 percent, 50 percent, or more. Draconian tax increases are presented as the only possible solution. The geese that lay our golden eggs are duly strangled. And then what? It’s funny how quickly political rhetoric can shift from bright futures of unlimited possibility, to grim demands for the cash needed to fulfill ironclad entitlement commitments.
Private corporations and unions make unsustainable problems too, but at some point unsupportable demands will kill off the host organism. The company and its unions collapse together, leaving others to pick up the pieces and devise a more workable business plan. That’s what happened with the Twinkie – it’s back on store shelves following a cycle of creative destruction. But that’s not what happened with Big Auto or Detroit, is it? When the operation reaches a certain size, we’re told it can’t be allowed to undergo the cleansing cycle of death and rebirth… which means suddenly it’s everyone’s problem.
As goes Detroit, so goes America. The steering wheel is lashed in place, a cement block has been dropped on the gas pedal, the emergency exits are welded shut, and nervous passengers are told to swallow their complaints. The commitments that were so very easy to make yesterday will become impossible to fulfill tomorrow. The range of options available to deal with fiscal crisis will be dramatically restricted, as every strategy to increase economic growth is pronounced unthinkable. How much flexibility does Detroit have to win investors, and attract productive labor back to the city? How much flexibility will Barack Obama’s successor have to restart the American economy? Promises become curses, then wither away into epitaphs.