True, oil is outrageously expensive. But in real dollars it cost more in 1979, when petroleum also took a much larger bite out of the total United States economy. Billions of dollars in annual deficits are scary, but as a percentage of our gross national product the current yearly shortfall is not historically that alarming.
Still, there are problems with these easy rationalizations about charge-it America. First, we will have to spend trillions of dollars for unfunded Social Security and Medicare commitments in the next few years as our population ages. Ever fewer workers must support more lavish benefits for ever more retirees.
Our military has put off necessary plane and ship replacements, and needs billions to replace worn equipment. At home, neglected bridges, roads, airports and railroads need even more money in fresh investment. So we should be saving now, not going into debt, for an upcoming nasty date with fiscal reality.
Even more critical is the toll on our national psyche. Americans don’t like to read that they are borrowing to pay their annual bills, borrowing to import their gas, borrowing to buy Japanese cars and Chinese consumer goods — and passing on the ever-larger tab to their children.
When they go abroad they feel embarrassed that their currency is weak — and getting weaker. They are bothered by global whispers that our houses and cars are too large, and that we consume in a manner we haven’t earned.
So our collective debt is not just a problem of fiscal sustainability, but also one of national pride and security. Especially at a time of war, the perception of strength — political, financial and military — is critical to our success.
Instead, Bin Laden screams that we are spoiled and decadent. Europe chimes in that our national character is profligate. An ascendant China hopes that if present trends hold, even our military power must — as was true of the cash-strapped British in the 1950s — shrink to meet fiscal realities.
So shamed Americans wait in vain for a leader to tell us that the government will balance its ledgers — and that we the people must spend less and invest more now while we can, rather than later when we must.