Remember when, on some rare occasion, the correct answer to a test question in school was “all of the above”? I happen to believe that much of life outside the confines of a classroom is like that. Each of us perceives an aspect of a given political or social problem on which we base a set of mostly valid observations. What we have less time and patience for are the dots we have yet to connect.
It has been called the “dirty little secret” that everyone in Washington knows.
“We suffer from a ‘fiscal cancer’. It is growing within us. And if we do not treat it, it can have catastrophic consequences for our country.”
Assume those are the words of Congressman Ron Paul, M.D.?
Think again. Those are the words of David Walker, top accountant in the nation.
The U.S. Comptroller General of the Government Accountability Office hit the streets to warn Americans that the long-anticipated Economic Perfect Storm is not only brewing, it made landfall January 1, 2008. Walker began sounding an alarm last year “like an Old Testament prophet” according to CBS “60 Minutes”.
• Demographics: 78 million baby boomers are set to retire — which makes them pensioners and medical dependents of the US taxpayer beginning January 1, 2008. “When those boomers start retiring en masse, then that will be a tsunami of spending that could sink our ship of state if we don’t get serious.”
• Costly Entitlements: “If nothing changes, the federal government’s not going to be able to do much more than pay interest on the mounting debt and some entitlements. It won’t have the money left for anything else — national defense, homeland security, education — you name it.”
• Healthcare Costs: “Our healthcare problem is much more significant than Social Security. By that I mean, the Medicare problem is five times greater than the Social Security problem. … It’s the number one fiscal challenge for the federal government. It’s the number one fiscal challenge for state governments. And it’s the number one challenge for American business . We’re going to have to dramatically and fundamentally reform our healthcare system, in installments, over the next 20 years. And if we don’t, it could bankrupt America.”
And to Walker’s list of Perfect Economic Storm clouds, one might add:
• Dollar Devaluation: “The Federal Reserve cut borrowing costs 1 percentage point to 4.25 percent in 2007, sending the dollar to $1.4967 on November 23, 2007, an all-time low against the euro,” states a January 2008 Bloomberg.com article describing investors’ attempts to seek “alternative assets” such as gold. But it only gets worse. “An OPEC switch from the dollar to the euro would bring a quick and devastating dollar and Wall Street crash that would make 1929 look like a $50 casino bet,” writes Sonja Ebron, the chief executive of blackEnergy. And, in fact, President Bush’s recent trip to the Mid East reveals that Mid East currencies, among others, are about to be “de-pegged” from the dollar according to a Yale Global report.
• Mortgage Crisis: Subprime lending practices have not only burst the real estate bubble but depressed state and local tax revenues — causing Christopher W. Hoene, the director of policy and research for the National League of Cities, to warn The Los Angeles Times: “We’re talking about a pretty tough fiscal environment for the next four or five years. Libraries, parks, after-school programs . . . you’ll see lots of questions raised about cities’ abilities to fund them.”
• Globalization: Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, in a December 14, 2007 NPR interview, blames “the extraordinary forces of globalization that arose subsequent to the end of the Soviet Union” for placing pressure on central banks. And far from being an America-specific concern, “housing deflation” is impacting economies worldwide “for the same reasons” they have stateside. All of which is to say that the odds of a recession are “clearly rising”, Greenspan says. But unlike earlier recessionary periods there is now at play a relatively modern financial tool that may contribute to the chaotic economic picture. So-called credit default swaps allow bondholders to insure against default. “Those who such sell such protection receive a quarterly premium based on a percentage of the amount insured,” reports the Financial Times of London. “The subprime crisis came fairly close to destabilizing the global financial system. A CDS crisis, under a pessimistic scenario [as outlined by Bill Gross of Pimco, the world’s largest bond fund], could produce a global financial meltdown.”
• Energy Inflation: The Dallas Morning News reports that the Energy Information Administration forecasts a 17.7 percent jump in crude-oil prices in 2008, with a corresponding 10.7 percent boost in the price of a gallon of regular gasoline. “According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics Consumer Price Index, the national average price for gasoline in May of 2007 was $3.18, a 100 percent increase from May of 2003 when it was $1.59,” reports the Appalachian News Express. “I think the Fed has some worries on inflation,” David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor’s in New York tells CBS News. “We are starting to see some leakage from energy into other areas of the economy.” And while cutting interest rates encourages more borrowing and spending that may allay recessionary fears, only increased interest rates can alleviate inflationary fears by increasing the value of US-dollar investments, MSNBC senior producer John W. Schoen writes. It’s a tough tightrope to walk under any definition, but one factor relatively new to the economic mix is the skyrocketing demand for energy in India and China, among other developing nations. Meanwhile, regions such as Africa and Iran, which might otherwise ramp up production to satisfy increasing demand, are hard pressed to do so due to the presence of war or political unrest, an OPEC fact sheet states. Making matters worse, the German-based Energy Watch Group in October 2007 released a study indicating that world oil production appears to have peaked in 2006, and that by 2030 production will fall by half. “These prices are here to stay,” explains Emil Pena, member of the advisory board at Calgary-based Genoil Inc. and the executive director of the Energy and Environmental Systems Institute at Rice University in Houston, speaking to Bloomberg.com in a January 2, 2008 interview after crude oil prices hit $100 per barrel.
• Bread & Butter Inflation: Although estimates vary, the picture of rising food prices is uniformly stark. Grocery increases in 2007 ranged from a 28 percent increase for eggs to a four percent hike overall according to USDA economists. Those prices are estimated to increase another three percent in 2008, with the gap between eating out and home cooking expected to narrow, The Dallas Morning News reports. The sharpest grocery increases since 1990 are expected to continue in 2008, with a disproportionate increase — roughly six to seven percent — in soy oil products and wheat items such as cereal, crackers and baked goods. Milk, meanwhile, is expected to exceed $5 per gallon this year. And it isn’t just consumers who are feeling the pain. “Since last year, wholesale food prices have increased 7.2 percent. If the trend continues, it will be the biggest food price increase in the last 27 years,” the National Restaurant Association told the Nashville Business Journal.
• Unchecked Borrowing: Walker maintains that we are essentially running up a credit card debt “against our grandchildren”. The outstanding public debt as of January 12, 2008 is a mind-boggling: $9,201,303,778,567.90 according to the U.S. National Debt Clock. The estimated population of the United States is 304,063,331 so each citizen’s share of this debt is $30,261.14 — or an average of $1.48 billion per day since September 29, 2006. According to a March 2006 MSNBC article, the war costs alone amount to $200 million per day — and this before factoring in the cost of potentially widening the Mid East war effort to include Iran or Pakistan.
Concern for the economy, for currency devaluation, for overextending our obligations — these are not conservative or liberal issues but are, in fact, central to the health of the entire nation.
Economists and grandparents alike have been talking for what may seem like forever about the day when Social Security, among other entitlements, would become insolvent. According to our nation’s top accountant, that day has come — and will continue to bear down on our economy over the next 20 years.
“I would argue that the most serious threat to the United States is not someone hiding in a cave in Afghanistan or Pakistan,” Walker said, “but our own fiscal irresponsibility.”
From all available evidence, somebody is going to have the unsavory task of putting our fractured economy back together again. Ready or not, that burden will come to rest upon our next president. But how will we fare if we elect someone who does not even have the wherewithal to prioritize these vital economic issues on the campaign trail — let alone offer a concrete plan to fix them?
One reason we do not hear more on this subject is that it is just plain scary. By the very nature of the problem, paying the piper will entail spending cuts to programs that may not necessarily deserve to be cut. The alternative is increased taxation. Either way, we are entering a period of sacrifice. Consequently, it is not the president or his or her party in the coming years that will provoke seemingly radical solutions. Rather, the economic times in which we live promise to demand out-of-the-box thinking in order to stave off federal bankruptcy. But try getting any sense of that reality from the campaign trail. The word is out among campaign strategists: Voters want a feel-good candidate.
What we need is an experienced and principled leader — a president who is unafraid to make the tough decisions that tough times call for. The problem? A number of presidential candidates, for all their enthusiasm and potential, are untested at the federal level. Not so, Congressman Paul. With three 10-year terms of Washington experience under his belt, bona fide wartime experience and may years serving on banking, finance and gold committees in Washington, Congressman Paul brings to the table qualities and qualifications that few 2008 presidential candidates can match. And unlike so many politicians who are desensitized to Washington largess, Congressman Paul’s voting record proves something even more telling: A man good for his word.
If Congressman Paul seems radical, it is likely a reaction to the sharp contrast between his traditionallimited government priorities and modern-day Republicans and Democrats who are not as different as they once were — particularly when it comes to big government and big spending. So if the mere act of calling upon the government to return to its Founding principles is radical, it is less a reflection upon Congressman Paul and more a reflection upon us. Not surprisingly, Congressman Paul’s admonishment to reduce or retire some of the agencies added to the federal government during the Progressive Era may seem counterintuitive in today’s context of presumptive necessity. However, as many of his academic endorsers from the History News Network appreciate, the historic record indicates that many of those agencies have been controversial since their inception — and have remained controversial as they mature into bloated bureaucracies that burden taxpayers, are ineffective at delivering on their promises, contribute to the federal deficit, or encroach upon states’ rights and constitutionally-protected individual liberties. So rather than broad-brush an endangered specimen of traditional statesmanship against the backdrop of prevailing lassitude, perhaps it is time we let Dr. Paul out of the archivists’ box, dust him off, and put his restorative skills to work.
The doctor may prescribe a hard pill to swallow — but it just might cure what ails us.
Now all that remains to be seen is this: Do we elect the candidate who tells us what we want to hear? Or what we need to hear?