The elephant in the room is getting harder and harder to ignore. It's not just bigger than ever, but threatens to go on a rampage that could lay waste everything around it. This particular elephant has a name: the national debt.
The neighbors who have been propping it up -- by buying the government's bonds -- can't help but notice how huge it's become, and wonder how safe they'll be once the beast gets completely out of control.
Our creditors around the world have begun to sell America short. They grow less and less confident about this country's ability to ever rein in our deficits. Soon they may demand more interest on the bonds they've been buying -- or even switch from the dollar to some other reserve currency for world trade.
Such a development would only aggravate the vicious cycle that our spendthrift ways have set in motion. More debt means higher interest rates means more inflation means a stagnant economy in which prices rise but the economy declines.
Sound familiar? Think of the Carter Years, which gave us a new word for this whole, demoralizing, debilitating process: stagflation. That specter now haunts the American economy again: Stagflation II.
The full faith and credit of the United States has been a synonym for stability ever since its first secretary of the treasury -- Alexander Hamilton -- insisted on paying off the young republic's bonds to the last penny. But what if this old republic thinks it can just go on taxing and spending and borrowing, as if the day of reckoning could be put off indefinitely?
How many times can the country's debt limit be raised, how many more dollars can be run off the printing presses before foreign investors catch on, and pull the rug out from under us? They've already started to wise up. Which is why all of us agree that it's time to finally set our fiscal house in order. (Well, all of us excepting the usual ideologues who think inflation is the universal remedy for all our economic woes.)
The president says he understands this can't go on. Hard decisions will have to be made. So, like the smooth politician he is, he's called on others to make them. It's the first resort of any leader who'd really rather somebody else did the heavy lifting: Appoint a bipartisan, blue-ribbon commission to take the heat. This one is called Bowles-Simpson after its two chairmen and, sure enough, it's come up with a whole list of steps so responsible this president isn't about to endorse them: