That fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing about, the one that promises national bankruptcy, immiseration, and endless hard times to come? It’s real, it’s looming ever closer and time is running out for us to do anything about it, to say nothing of summoning up the political will to do so.
So urges former Houston mayor and onetime Texas gubernatorial candidate Bill White, an advisor to financial high rollers and a thoughtful student of both economics and economic history. In his new book America’s Fiscal Constitution: Its Triumph and Collapse, White looks back at a time when the nation kept its budgetary house in order—a habit that came undone, he notes with grave specificity, in the autumn of 2001. Debt threatens to sink the American enterprise—and not just debt, but the staggering cost of servicing that debt. “We’re racing against compound interest,” White says. “And when debt is rising to a level near the total national income, then we can only beat it in a sprint, never a marathon.”
The national government is no stranger to borrowing money. Indeed, in his pages, White charts six major financial crises, counting the current one, that have prompted the government to do so. But, he is quick to note, up until now debt has historically been regarded as “rare and unusual,” something to incur only in emergencies. In our history to 2001, those emergencies entailed four purposes: waging war, patching otherwise unpatchable budget holes in times of economic downturn, acquiring territory and preserving the union.
In other words, taking on debt to account for the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, or the Great Depression makes fiscal sense, by White’s account—especially given that the government was then quick to pay it off, using linked spending and taxing policies to bring the budget back into balance.
“I wrote this book because of a change in attitude on the part of people in the government,” says White. That change came in 2001, with a very real emergency: the terrorist attacks of September 11 and their financial aftermath, which sent markets into free-fall. But something happened: The Bush administration, abetted by Congress, started two wars off the books while, for the first time ever in wartime, cutting taxes. Lacking its ordinary source of funding, the government began to borrow to pay for ordinary operating expenses—and to borrow some more, and then some more, as if exhilarated by being able to spend money without having to go to the taxpayer.
At least not directly, though the taxpayer will have to foot the bill eventually. White notes that as of 2014, the share of the federal debt amounts to $120,000 for every single working American, a little less than twice the average American household’s total net worth.
White lays blame at the door of both parties for the mad spree of fiscal irresponsibility that has led to our record level of debt. But, he suggests, both parties stand to gain if they repudiate and reform their current bad habits by returning to their historical roots and to the financial discipline of old. “The Republicans can score a point if they can argue against a large government financed by debt,” he says, though that will necessarily entail either slashing military spending or raising taxes, both anathema. The Democrats, for their part, “will be able to compete more effectively for the center of American politics by returning to the policies of Clinton."
That means balancing the budget. It also means raising taxes, which would be politically unpalatable and perhaps impractical for anyone seeking reelection. But if that doesn’t happen—if a tax-financed budget isn’t matched with good spending habits, if his without-which-nothing expedient of a constitutional balanced-budget amendment isn’t put in place—then White predicts that we have five or 10 years left to us as a kind of grace period before the depletion brought about by our debt marathon begins to set in.
“It won’t happen overnight,” he says, “but in 20 or 30 years, quite simply, we’ll fail. That’ll be our day of reckoning, and if we don’t do something now to avoid it, it will only be because of crass hypocrisy.” Is it likely that we can dodge the bullet of financial catastrophe? “I’m more optimistic than some,” White says, leaving that hard question for the future to decide. Sometimes cantankerous, unsettling and controversial, America’s Fiscal Constitution urges that we take immediate steps to avert a seventh and perhaps final crisis.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.