Ethics & Public Policy Center

Five Reasons for Optimism

Published in The Catholic Thing on November 17, 2012



In Poland, they have a saying: A pessimist is someone who says, “Things can’t possibly get any worse!” An optimist is someone who says, “Oh, yes they can!” Here are five reasons for optimism.

Item 1: The national debt today exceeds $16 trillion. President Obama’s most recent budget would raise that to around $20 trillion by the end of his second term (a growth rate of about $2 million per minute) while running permanent deficits in excess of $600 billion dollars. According to his own budget, President Obama will leave office having added more than $8 trillion to the national debt in 8 years.

The cost of interest on that debt will more than double between 2013 and 2017, which means that by the time the Forty-fifth President of the United States is sworn in, our debt service costs alone will exceed $550 billion per year. By comparison, direct spending on the Iraq War — all eight+ years of it combined — was about $800 billion.

Item 2: The primary drivers of all this debt are our entitlement programs, especially health care entitlements. Last summer, President Obama said this about the impending Medicare crisis: “If you look at the numbers then Medicare in particular will run out of money and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up.”

During the campaign, President Obama blasted his opponents for wanting to “end Medicare as we know it.” Meanwhile, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that in a little more than a decade, federal spending on health entitlements, social security, and debt service will consume 100 percent of federal revenues. Given the path the president has kept us on, it seems that a lot more than “Medicare as we know it” is going to end.

Item 3: The economy stinks. This isn’t news, but what people might not realize is that it’s getting worse — the economy has slowed each of the last two years. A new recession in the next twelve months is not unlikely. Unemployment continues to hover around 8 percent, while labor force participation is trending downward toward record lows. Real wages continue to fall.

As Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan said over and over again, this is not what a real recovery looks like. But you don’t have to take their word for it: here’s a telling chart from the Congressional Budget Office that demonstrates the point rather succinctly.

Source: Congressional Budget Office

Historically, the average recovery is more than twice as robust as our current recovery. You might say that in the three years since the recession ended, the Obama economy has managed to fall two full years behind schedule.

Item 4: The birth rate in this country recently hit an all-time low (34.3 births per 1,000 females per year) and the total fertility rate — the number of births per woman per lifetime — fell to 1.9, below replacement level and a record low.

Our largest entitlement programs are funded by payroll taxes. Medicare and Social Security are basically massive transfers of wealth from young workers to older retirees. This would be unconscionable except that the young eventually get old themselves, at which point the wealth of new working youngsters gets transferred to the “new” old folks. Generation A is subsidized by Generation B, Generation B is subsidized by Generation C, and so on. But what if Generation D is too small to cover the costs of Generation C’s entitlements? If Greece is the canary in the coalmine, there are reasons to worry.

Item 5: Speaking of demographics, some 53 million children have been legally aborted in this country since 1973. Almost no one mentions this, but one of the reasons we face an entitlement crisis today is that we’re missing a few dozen million young people.

And of course, if a nation is willing to kill its unborn children by the millions, what qualms could it possibly have about bequeathing ruinous debt and diminished liberty to whatever’s left of the next generation?

One last point: While President Obama has aggravated many of these problems, and will no doubt continue to do so, they all have roots going back decades and were evident long before he was elected president. And while there was some hope that they might have altered our national course for the better while there was still time, it is unlikely that a Romney-Ryan administration would have been able to satisfactorily resolve these challenges.

Back in July, when the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, Chief Justice John Roberts offered this warning: “It is not [this Court’s] job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.”

In the face of staggering challenges, this nation has not chosen to throw our leaders out of office, but to keep them. The question now on the minds of many is whether that decision reflects a fundamental shift in the character and values of the American people away from both our Judeo-Christian heritage and the Founders’ understanding, and towards a self-destructive hedonism in our moral lives and a progressive understanding of the state? Or does the election reveal a house deeply divided culturally — and not simply split about the means to a common end, but about the ends of government?

If it’s the latter, then there is great deal of work to do. If it’s the former, then perhaps H.L. Mencken was right when he suggested democracy was the theory that the people “know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Stephen P. White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC and coordinator of the Tertio Millennio Seminar on the Free Society.

This article first appeared on “The Catholic Thing” (www.thecatholicthing.org), copyright 2012, all rights reserved.

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