We are a week and a few days into 2011, but it’s not simply a new year. The end of 2010 marked the passing of the first decade of this new century. It’s only fitting we look back and look for lessons learned.
There’s no question this nation and the world were rocked early on. 9/11 caused many to question just what age of man we were truly entering. A new era of fear? An era of power centers shifting to meet this terrorist scourge?
In the wake of that horrific day came a simple yet powerful thought - a motivation to prevent another attack on American soil, no matter the cost. Quickly, that mindset spread to other sectors in our government, and our own way of life. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and, indeed the world’s, economy was turned upside down. President Bush and opponents alike were quick to reassure the public. The calming words? “Whatever it takes.”
When airlines were reeling due to new security guidelines; when states were forced to post state troopers at capital buildings and major landmarks; when our leaders vowed to hunt down the enemy, even if it meant fighting two wars, at every turn, the answer was the same – whatever the cost.
It was easy to say such a phrase. Yes, our nation was in supreme debt, but security knows no price tag, or so the line went, and we needed to take these extraordinary steps to return to normal.
Fast forward a few years to the fall of 2008; the mortgage and credit markets crashed, piling on more fears and concerns, especially of a sector that promised a return of American domination on the world stage.
To hear then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson put it, we were on the verge of a financial meltdown that would reverberate throughout the globe. We would need to fix this mess, whatever it takes.
And so, after a decade of “whatever the cost” and “whatever it takes,” it is now time for a different frame of mind, for no other reason than we simply cannot afford to say these words and not feel the consequences.
Our nation and the world are not teetering, but rather we are in the beginning stages of a global default on our financial obligations. I don’t need to recite the statistics to prove to you the shadow of debt and its punitive consequences are out our nation’s door.
As we enter this second decade of the 21st Century, it is time for the United States to embark on a new path. Call it the Reality of Austerity – a new deal of sorts where policymakers, voters, and workers alike wake up from the fitful spending we’ve mindlessly pursued in these gluttonous years and return to some semblance of living within our means.
Other nations are not waiting on the world’s lone economic superpower. Greece, Germany, Ireland, France, Great Britain, each of these nations is facing the reality of austerity in their own unique approaches. Some are working better than others. All have riotous villagers storming the castles. But austerity has come, and it’s here to stay.
For the first time in generations, our children and grandchildren will know firsthand what it means when government can no longer meet its obligations. Until now, such talk was the subject of government bean counters and doomsday economists.
We can no longer convince ourselves that such calamity is only “on paper.” No, this threat is real, and it will rock the very foundation of our country more powerfully than any terrorist or enemy of the state could ever hope or imagine.
This reality of austerity will impact each of us individually, and we must prepare for it and recognize it is for the greater good of our nation.
No more can we hope for a 1936 New Deal or a 1964 Great Society renaissance. No, this must be fixed from the top down, and the bottom up. We will all share in its pain.
We have spent more money in the first decade of the 21st Century than during all of the decades since this nation’s founding combined. And what do we have to show for it?
One in six Americans still faces hunger each day. One in eight lives in poverty, while the number of Americans living in extreme poverty (those with incomes below half the poverty line) is over 17 million – the highest level on record since data first became available in 1975.
Despite these dire numbers, every year, Congress adds more programs in the War on Poverty. Are we any better? The numbers prove otherwise.
My point here is no government program alone can ever hope to solve what ails us as a people. And until we stop putting our faith, and our dollars, into those hands, we will continue in this whirlpool of debt.
The nation’s governors will lead the way to austerity. Already, state CEO’s such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) are squaring up against state bureaucrats and worker unions, worried their perennial salaries and bloated size are only exacerbating attempts to trim budgets. There’s even talk from state Democrats of doing the same. Just look at New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), who is staring at the reality of unsustainable deficits and recognizing he, too, must trim the Empire State’s public workforce.
Party labels don’t hold the same sway at the state level as they do in Washington, because at the end of the day, these office holders must clear their ledger books of the red ink. They can’t simply print more money, or move items “off-budget” and pledge to deal with them at a later date.
At the same time, governors are increasingly wary of heading to Washington with their hats in hand and asking for federal bailouts. They recognize additional “stimulus” funds such as enhanced Medicaid dollars and other federal infusions only tie the states to more mandates. Further, the federal dollars cloud the true fiscal health of each state, elevating baselines of budgets in one year and raising expectations from the state electorate those same dollars will be there again in subsequent years.
Simply put, we are entering a new reality- the Reality of Austerity. Our government MUST heed the call of the electorate from this past November and force itself to lay off the pork, decrease the bloat, stopping making promises it has no way to fund, get it’s checkbook balanced, and save for when the economy isn’t booming.
If we learned anything in the first decade of the new millennium, it’s that we truly can’t have our cake and eat it too- we cannot spend as if tomorrow will be as fruitful as today. Instead of “whatever the cost” and “whatever it takes”, we must start planning and implementing long-term budgets and solutions and stick to them rather than falsely believing short-term growth is here to stay in perpetuity. This second decade will be rougher than the first, much less the 80’s and 90’s, but if we can adhere to this rediscovered fiscal discipline, we will come out better and stronger than ever.