President Bush’s current approval ratings are about 32 percent. Only one in four Americans approves of the Democratic-controlled Congress.
So why are we so upset with our political leadership? Despite the housing slump, it is not the worst of times. After all, the economy is still strong, with low inflation, low unemployment, low interest rates and respectable growth.
The Iraqi war remains unpopular, but good news has emerged recently about the surge and Iraqis joining Americans against the terrorists. We haven’t had another 9/11, and the Europeans — especially France and Germany — seem far friendlier.
Instead, our anger with our political leaders more likely originates over money — or rather the lack of it. Americans believe that their rich country is either going broke or is seen as a global spendthrift that can’t pay for what it charges. And the worry over insolvency gets worse at a time of conflict — which, as the Roman statesman Cicero once remarked, is often decided by money, “the sinews of war.”
We are currently servicing $9 trillion in aggregate national debt. China and Japan alone hold over $1.5 trillion in U.S. dollar reserves — the result of a general American trade deficit that usually runs about $700 billion per year.
The euro — pegged at less than 90 cents to the dollar in early 2002 — is now over $1.40. And the historically weaker Canadian dollar now roughly equals the value of our own.
Oil prices were around $22 to $28 in 2000, and are now over $80 a barrel. Over the past seven years Middle East oil exporters — many hostile to the United States — have raked in well over $1 trillion in windfall profits.
The annual budget deficit is shrinking but still will come in this fiscal year at about $160 billion. Economists and government officials, of course, attempt to explain away all this red ink. Creditor nations, they remind us, simply lend us back money at relatively cheap interest to keep buying their goods. So they can’t really call in their debts without ruining their own best market.
Where else are Japan and China going to bank their profits but in the politically stable, transparent and honest United States — an atoll of security in a world of political upheaval and corruption in Africa, Latin America and Asia?
Meanwhile, our weak dollar supposedly makes American goods more competitive and keeps employment here strong as we export products and services to dollar-laden customers. In any case, despite European trade surpluses in the last few years, the United States economy has outperformed the European Union’s, and our standard of living remains much higher.
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.