In his discussion of the influence of Edmund Burke on conservative thinking, Russell Kirk made this observation:
The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining, national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated, and continual revision of positive law, is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors. (The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Kindle Locations 779-781).
Kirk's comments on careless stewardship of the environment deserve more attention in a later blog post, but for today I want to focus on his trenchant critique of debt, "national debts recklessly increased until they are repudiated."
An enormous national debt reflects the antithesis of prudence, and exposes a nation's moral failure to live within its means. Debt is indeed a moral issue, because it exists when one generation lives like the prodigal while expecting another to live in austerity in order to pay the price for its excesses. And in this regard, both political parties are culpable (though in recent times no one did more to undermine our national solvency than President George W. Bush and the Republican Congress of 2001-2006).
For traditional conservatives, the crisis we are facing now as a nation is incredibly frustrating, frustrating because it should never have happened in the first place, and would not have existed had politicians of both parties followed a truly conservative approach to governing. Instead, both parties have made unbelievably extravagant promises to those in Medicare and Social Security, both parties have gorged on "discretionary spending" (using no discretion), and both parties have refused to ask Americans to pay for the programs they enjoy. I can't blame them - who wants to deliver the bad news that we are going to have to pay more taxes and receive less government services in return. But that is the reality, and the longer those in power wait to act like adults and solve this problem, the more painful the inevitable solution will be.
Like losing weight, the solution to the debt crisis is simple, but not easy. To lose weight you have to burn more calories than you consume, and you can do this by increasing exercise, decreasing caloric intake, or in serious cases, both. But as I can testify, as simple as the formula is, the practice is very difficult. And in the same way, the only way out of our astronomical debt crisis is to increase taxes and reduce spending. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY.
There are those on the left who refuse to consider any reforms in our entitlement programs, and believe that this problem (if they acknowledge it exists at all - some do not!) can be solved purely by raising taxes on the wealthy. And there are those on the right who think that no one should pay more taxes (or that in fact taxes should be cut!), and believe that this problem can be solved purely by cutting government spending. Both sides have chosen to live in an ideological fantasy world in which the basic laws of mathematics no longer exist.
There is a way to prudently solve this problem, however, in a way that distributes the painful realities of the solution as broadly as possible. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have created a plan that reforms entitlements, simplifies the tax code, and demonstrates real debt reduction. I encourage everyone to check it out. It will requiring turning off MSNBC and Fox News, tuning out ideologues like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity (I'd mention a successful liberal talk show host if there was one!), and getting serious about solving our nation's gravest threat to security.