And then what?

Laura Hollis

10/2/2008 9:59:40 PM - Laura Hollis

Most people can remember when they read something that was life-changing; an epiphany or “aha!” moment. One such moment for me was the first time I read Thomas Sowell.

Dr. Sowell, who is one of the greatest minds of our time, has written a number of books that are breathtaking in their ability to cut through rhetoric and spin, and clearly explain economic, social, and political realities. All of his books are worth reading (and I’m working on it). But the one that comes to mind right now is Applied Economics. In it, Sowell describes what he calls, “one stage thinking” – decision-making based on immediate (and often politically-calculated) impulses, but with little or no thought to what will happen thereafter.

I’ve come to call this the “And then what?” analysis. And I’ve been asking this question a lot over the past few days, as we have watched the financial meltdown on Wall Street unfold. In all the discussion about the now $800 billion bailout, I have heard virtually no discussion about what decisions will be made, what policies will be adopted (or abandoned) to ensure that this will not happen again.

The current financial crisis reminds me of the heated debate we saw last year over the proper legislative response to illegal immigration. Once it was revealed that the U.S. was home to perhaps 12 million illegal immigrants, some politicians called for immediate deportation. Others protested that that was impossible, discriminatory, or prohibitively expensive. My personal thought was that while we could probably absorb 12 million new citizens, no one was addressing the real question: even if we granted the 12 million who are here amnesty, then what? Conversely, even if we somehow managed to deport all those who are here illegally, then what?

In other words, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what we do about those individuals who are here now, unless we take steps to ensure that 12 million more – or 20 million – or 35 million – don’t descend on our doorstep. Because even if it is true that we can absorb those who are already here, it is also true that we cannot do that indefinitely. But what have we done to remedy the situation? Nothing. And so people pour across our borders.

So it is with the proposed $800 billion bailout plan. It is riddled with uncertainty. It may salvage the economy, or it may not. Perhaps the economy could survive and rebound without it. And perhaps not. What is certain, however, is that we cannot continue to bail out failing institutions. And as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have made clear, this is especially true when the institution we are being asked to bail out is our own government. So, let’s say we somehow manage to come up with $800 billion. This time. Then what?

The real issue is not how we spend our money today, but what we will allow our government to do tomorrow. Without a change in government’s attitude about spending, not only will this situation repeat itself; it will be much, much worse.

For proof, one need only read the report issued by the Government Accountability Office this past June. In it, the GAO states that the federal government is “on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path,” driven in part by Social Security, but especially Medicare and Medicaid spending. The report also warns that the federal government “faces increasing pressures” and yet “a shrinking window of opportunity” in which to solve the problem. GAO Acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro tells Congress what they already know: that the government has been borrowing from the Social Security surplus to pay for these increases, but that that surplus will soon be gone (he estimates by 2017– just nine years from now), while the Medicare and Medicaid expenditures will be increasing. The report says, ominously, “…the challenge is to take action before being forced to do so by some sort of crisis.”

Sound familiar?

The United States is already borrowing staggering amounts from foreign countries to support our debt. When Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid collapse, they will make last week’s bankruptcies of a few investment banks and insurance companies look like a failed bake sale.

This is why it is inscrutable to me when some polls indicate that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is pulling ahead on economic issues. It was a Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) who got the legislation enacted which created the incentive for banks to lower lending standards. It was a Democratic president (Bill Clinton) who sent his Justice Department thugs to threaten lenders with discrimination litigation if they did not increase their number of high-risk loans. And it was the Democratic members of Congress (Barney Frank and Maxine Waters, among others) who dismissed as “alarmist” the warnings of economists and advisors in the early 2000s that allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy and sell these worthless securities would lead to a financial collapse of monumental proportions when the housing bubble burst.

They didn’t listen then, and they aren’t listening now.

This should be a home run issue for Republicans. They, too, have spent like drunken sailors. But at least Republicans have a wagon to get back on; the Democrats’ solution for bloated government and profligate spending is more government and more spending. And Obama would “raise the red standard,” as Spender-in-Chief. A Democratic President, aided by a Democrat-controlled Congress, would be a fiscal disaster for the United States of unprecedented proportions.

As Thomas Sowell points out so elegantly, politicians tend to think only of the short term - what will get them through the next election. But the rest of us MUST think about the long term, because we’re the ones who are going to be stuck with it. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by yesterday’s problem and deluded by today’s promises, we will be blindsided by tomorrow’s crisis. And tomorrow’s crisis will be catastrophic.

This may not be a pleasant message, but it is a simple one to understand. If Republicans can communicate these realities to the voters, they have a decent chance of winning the election. And if they cannot, then what?

God help us.