By Donella Meadows
–October 4, 1990–
It took them four months of high-level haggling. They produced a plan for the biggest deficit yet — an estimated $250 billion NOT INCLUDING the Savings and Loan bailout. Once again they shoved the target date for balancing the budget five years into the future. It is always five years in the future. And as the future becomes the present, the budget becomes harder, not easier, to balance.
To hear them talk, their biggest worry is who the voters will hold responsible for the minor pain they have seen fit to inflict. Is it the Democrats who pushed the long overdue, still-too-small tax increases? Or the Republicans who insisted upon the not-yet-enough spending cuts? The leaders of our government spent ninety percent of their effort not on solving the nation’s problems, but on shoving around the blame.
Frankly I don’t care whether the Democrats or the Republicans have done the most to create this fiscal mess. I don’t care which party runs the next Congress. Neither one, as far as I can see, has the courage to end the budget crisis. Neither one even tells the truth about it.
The truth is that each year’s deficit increases the amount of interest we must pay every future year — unless there comes a day (unimaginable and unmentioned by our politicans) when we run a surplus and can begin retiring the debt. The pain we put off to the future grows by compound interest. The budget is harder to face this year because of the accumulations of our past cowardice, and our present cowardice will make it even tougher to face next year.
The truth that there is only one legitimate reason to borrow — to invest in capacity to produce or earn more in the future. That has not been what the nation has been doing with its borrowed money. We have been borrowing to maintain consumption and to pay interest on existing debt. Borrowing for consumption and interest is addictive behavior. It snowballs into ruin.
Another truth is that the government has an attitude of stinginess toward every public duty except funding the military and protecting the assets of the rich. The politicians seem to consider only private wealth and public weapons important to the nation’s strength — not the health of the people, or the education of the children, or the research of the scientists, or the viability of the farms, or the state of repair of the roads, or the cleanness of the air and water — all of which have been eroding. The debt has been rising; the foundation of our ability to pay it has been crumbling.
But, say the politicians, the people won’t stand for higher taxes. They have said that repeatedly during a decade in which they have systematically raised the taxes of all the people except the rich. They also say the people won’t permit cuts in social services, while steadily cutting social services. The truth is that the people who won’t stand for higher taxes are wealthy contributors to political campaigns. The people who won’t stand for cuts in services are in the Pentagon. And those are the people our government has been serving.
Why, rather than piling debt upon ourselves and our children, can’t we go back to a progressive income tax with the highest bracket at 70 percent — back to where we were in 1980? Why can’t we raise the gasoline tax to levels like those in Europe? Why can’t we phase out the $150 billion we spend each year defending Europe? Why did our high officials, conferring so heatedly for four months take only the tiniest steps in those directions — pygmy steps, when we have giant problems?
Because we have no leadership, I hear people saying all around me. Because they’re all corrupt down there in Washington. I don’t know a single soul who expects any rationality, courage, or honesty from our government — a terrible state of cynicism for the people of a supposed democracy, but an understandable one.
I hear people talk wistfully about an idea that’s floating around — adding to the ballot a box labeled “None of the Above.” If a majority of voters marks that box, the election has to be run over again with new candidates. Folks around here say that in the coming election “None of the Above” would win every Congressional seat. And should.
So what are we to do, we poor saps whose taxes have been raised, whose services have been cut, and who are more in debt than ever before? It’s tempting to vote every incumbent out of office. But that won’t help — their opponents, rising within the same system of self-dealing and non-leadership, are no better.
We could start a massive write-in campaign for Mickey Mouse. That would get across the general message of discontent, but it wouldn’t give us a better Congress.
The only choice I can see is the one we’ve been avoiding. It’s to rise up and become the active, angry citizens we should have been all along, informing ourselves about the candidates, choosing the ones who show at least a vestige of integrity, and riding them hard, assuring them that if they don’t serve the nation, we will have no mercy.
If we don’t do that, it will be the inexorable turnings of economic cycles, the mathematics of debt accumulation, and the historical fate of large, proud, unwary nations that will have no mercy.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990