Stupid Season

American politics is getting dumber even as fiscal catastrophe looms larger.

As April turned into May, the political class spent the better part of one week furiously missing the point. Instead of a debate about whether America’s battle against Islamic extremists was going well, whether the Pentagon’s extensive activities across the Muslim world were making the country safer, or whether a country with $15 trillion in debt could continue accounting for almost half of the world’s military spending, the foreign policy flap du jour centered around whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had been sufficiently gung ho in 2008 about sending assassins into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden and whether President Barack Obama’s choice to “spike the football” with a campaign ad celebrating the one-year anniversary of Bin Laden’s death was inappropriately political.

This meaningless, backward-looking debate—on which I dutifully weighed in for cable news and talk radio (if they ask, I will come!)—at least had the virtue of being somewhat related to the federal government’s core business. Not so the hot topic of discussion the week before that, which was how exactly Congress should pay for the estimated $6 billion annually it would cost to extend an expiring 2007 reduction in the interest rate on federally guaranteed student loans. 

Both major political parties wanted to keep subsidizing the loans at 3.4 percent instead of letting the rate go back up to the pre-2007 6.8 percent. The dispute concerned whether the money would come from boosting payroll taxes on corporations (as favored by Senate Democrats), cutting subsidies to oil and gas companies (as House Democrats wanted), or cutting spending from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the House Republicans’ proposal). As frequently happens with microscopic differences on minor issues, the choice was portrayed by the political class as a matter of life or death.

“This is personal,” Obama told college students in Iowa. “This is at the heart of who we are. We’ve got to make college more affordable for more young people. We can’t put the middle class at a disadvantage. We can’t price out folks who are trying to make sure that they not only succeed for themselves but help the country succeed.”

While there is an interesting policy debate to be had about government intervention in the increasingly expensive higher education business, a little perspective is in order: The federal leviathan currently burns through $6 billion in less than 15 hours. It takes about a day and a half for Washington to rack up $6 billion in debt. With each passing hour, our debt crisis grows larger, our entitlement time bomb ticks closer to detonation, and our politicians do everything in their power to change the subject.

If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the charade of student loan politicking, it is that nothing gets the competitive juices of Democrats and Republicans flowing quite like the opportunity to promise “free” money to favored constituencies—a fact that helps explain our acceleration toward the fiscal cliff. They prefer to campaign on these small differences in patronage methodologies, while condemning the unforgivable venality of the other guys, rather than take the political risk of dealing forthrightly with mathematically untenable budgets.

Even the politicians who at first seem to be exceptions to that rule are often disappointments. In 2003 Arnold Schwarzenegger swept into the gubernatorial mansion in California promising to balance budgets, “blow up boxes” of bureaucracy, reform runaway pension promises, and tackle entrenched public-sector interests head-on. He was a hit at the Republican National Convention in 2004, calling Democrats “economic girly-men,” whatever that meant. By 2005, after losing a bruising battle with nurses’ unions and other labor groups, Schwarzenegger beat a hasty retreat, leaving office with a record that looked eerily similar to that of his disgraced predecessor, Gray Davis.

Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, proved more daring than the Austrian Oak after winning office in 2010, pushing through legislation by the slimmest of majorities to eliminate most collective bargaining rights of public-sector unions, compel government workers to contribute more money to their health insurance and retirement, and trim state spending by modest amounts. The result was a local backlash that turned national, leading to a recall vote scheduled for June 5 and sending shivers down the spines of budget realists everywhere.

In this environment, it feels safer to speak loudly about reform but carry a little stick. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has warmed Republican hearts by conspicuously clashing with Democratic politicians and public-sector unionists who have helped drive the Garden State into a fiscal ditch. But look beyond the crowd pleasing one-liners (“What the hell are we paying you for?” Christie once said to Obama after the president failed to come up with a debt reduction proposal), and you see a proposed state budget that increases spending by $2.1 billion (according to The Record of North Jersey), corporate-welfare giveaways since 2010 amounting to nearly $1.6 billion (according to The New York Times), and signals that the governor favors raising New Jersey’s minimum wage to $10 an hour. But Christie probably will remain a conservative favorite (especially outside his state) as long as he continues calling opponents “numbnuts” now and then.

Mitt Romney has taken this risk aversion strategy a step further, altogether avoiding specific proposals for confronting the federal fiscal crisis. Romney promises to “cut, cap, and balance” the budget, but he also vows to boost military spending, protect Medicare, and shore up Social Security. In a comical mid-April flurry, news outlets reported that Romney had told high-level donors at a private fundraiser, “I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate.” When word of this vaguer-than-Schwarzenegger promise got out, the Romney campaign immediately backpedaled. A spokesman told CNN the candidate was “tossing ideas out, not unveiling policy.”

The rhetorical cowardice is deliberate. During his 1994 campaign against Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Romney told The Weekly Standard in March, “one of the things I found…was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education.…So will there be some [departments] that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

This is the tepid stuff that wins Republican Party nominations in 2012, the first full year since World War II in which total federal debt will exceed gross domestic product. There isn’t a politician alive who doesn’t understand that the current trend is unsustainable. Yet there are virtually no politicians who have placed this national interest at the center of their agenda. 

So what are we going to talk about for the next six months? In early April, Democrats were keen to discuss the GOP’s “war on women,” with the president convening a special “White House Forum on Women and the Economy.” A week later, Republicans struck back after Democratic operative Hilary Rosen charged that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” And for a few stunning days later that month, conservatives who were fed up with liberal snickering over the story that Mitt Romney once strapped his dog to the roof of the family car gleefully seized on a passage in Obama’s memoir where he described eating dog in Indonesia. If we don’t get serious about our problems, we will soon be eating something much worse.

Editor in Chief Matt Welch is co-author, with Nick Gillespie, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America (PublicAffairs).

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Almanian...still||

    Stupid is as stupid does. We have not reached Peak Stupid. We never will.

    The End

  • Pro Libertate||

    There is such a thing as Peak Stupid. When the stupid gets so great that the society applying the stupid is no longer sustainable, you've reached Peak Stupid.

  • gaijin||

    Idiocracy...as how-to manual.

  • Anonymoose||

    I'm not sure if this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard or the most insightful..

  • sarcasmic||

  • ||

    Bastiat is always good. Thanks.

  • MSimon||

    I always wonder who the libertarians would like as the premier military power in the world if they don't like America in that role. Would it be better to have Russia on top? Or China? Or would a coalition of Arabians be better?

    libertaians of another era got their way on the matter and we got WW2 as a result. We have avoided that mistake for about 65 years (Churchill hoped for 50). So we are about due.

    Human stupidity always follows the same course. It's a law or something.

  • Lord Humungus||

    straw man looms large!

  • Restoras||

    At least it isn't an "army" of straw men...amiright??

  • JW||

    A-ha! Our first challenger to prove the theory of Peak Stupid!

    Show your work. Wait, in second thought, don't. Please don't.

  • Pi Guy||

    libertaians of another era got their way on the matter and we got WW2 as a result.

    *consults alt-hisotry sources* Yup. There it is. Right there, it says that the economic policies enacted by the FDR administration were fiscally conservative and absolutely libertarian.

    /uh - what?

  • Lord Humungus||

    and the USSR was a hotbed of free markets. And Hitler, letting everyone smoke pot while letting gays marry.

    Those were truly happy days.

  • MSimon||

    Uh. You are aware of the anti-military sentiment of the 30s are you not? The desire to reign in military spending?

  • Mo' $parky||

    Human stupidity always follows the same course. It's a law or something.

    And this post is the most perfect evidence of this fact.

  • ||

    Because clearly it was non-interventionism that...allowed...WWII to happen.

    If only the American Empire had been built during the 1920's, we would have avoided war and depression!

  • Sam Grove||

    Here is another example of declining human intelligence.

    OTH, what the hell are you talking about?

    It is well known that WWII was nearly a direct consequence of the Treaty of Versaille which put Germany on the path to runaway inflation and the rise of the NAZIS party. Wilson warned of the consequences, but the European allies wanted to kick Germany while he was down.
    Then again, without U.S. entry into WWI, that war would likely have ended in a draw, so, in a way, you can blame it all on Wilson.

  • NotSure||

    How about nobody being the "premier military". Nobody is due WW3 because most people don't find nuclear war very pleasant.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    And I always wonder how the statists think that the U.S. will be the "premier military power of the world" when its economy collapses.

  • Rasilio||

    Um you do realize that for most of human history the "premier military power of the world" was whoever happened to win the last major war don't you?

    Further the gap between the "premier military power in the world" and everybody else was much closer to the gap in military power between Brazil and Venezuela than it is between the US and either Russia or China (whoever you want to consider #2).

    Finally, you do realize that the United States has defeated the "Premier military power in the world" on at least 4 occasions in it's short 240 year history. This alone shows that being the leading "military power" is not of any particular value, especially if you pick a fight with the premier economic power.

    In otherwords I really don't care who the premier military power in the world is as long as we follow economic sanity we'll be the dominant economic power and that is a hell of a lot more important

  • Anonymoose||

    Seriously whos running Europe right now? The Germans. With economic power and sanity.

  • KPres||

    "libertaians of another era got their way"

    Oh, so we were getting our way when a coalition of nations decided to unreasonably punish Germany, after we beat up on them in a war that had nothing to do with us, with harsh sanctions that crippled their economy, to which they responded by ramping up their printing press, destroying their currency, and paving the way for the rise of a Nationalistic dictator?

    That was a libertarian foreign policy initiative? Not quite, though it sounds exactly like what you get from the Blue/Red establishment.

  • Lord Humungus||

    But think of the old people! And the children! And the poor! And the women! And the underpaid government worker! Surely we must bankrupt everyone to make sure they can scratch a feeble living, getting free food and money. What kind of heartless monsters are you?

  • wareagle||

    We’ve got to make college more affordable for more young people.

    for a man who habitually says stupid things, this Obamaism should be near the top of the list. Why is college so expensive? Because institutions, most of them state-run and state-operated keep raising tuition every year, with the full consent of state legislatures. And when govt becomes the maker and guarantor of student loans, that only makes a bad situation worse.

  • Restoras||

    I'm still trying to figure out why we need more young people to go to college when it's so effin' expensive to hire a plumber or electrician.

  • Pi Guy||

    I keep wishing my dad had urged me to be a plumber.

  • sarcasmic||

    Me too. I've never met a poor plumber.

  • ||

    My brother is a Master Plumber. Not all that glamorous.

  • Pi Guy||

    I'll bet he's making his bills.

  • ||

    Yeah? It is a tough job, but it pays pretty decent.

    I know lawyers that make less than some plumbers I know. The plumbers sleep soundly every night and fish on the weekends with their kids.

    A lawyer buddy once told me that as time goes by he worries more and more about mistakes he might have made in years past that will come back to haunt him. He drinks. He claims he cant sleep at night.

  • Anonymoose||

    Seriously, like getting sprayed in the face with raw sewage? Be a plumber.

  • ||

    My parents were of the "you have to go to a 4-year college" mindset back in the day. It would have been embarrassing to them if I hadn't. I believe if I were of college age nowadays they might have a different opinion and been just as happy for me to go to a trade school or do a trade apprenticeship of some kind.

  • JW||

    I'm at that point now with my kids. They probably *should* go, since so many companies use a degree as a proxy for hiring. But they want to go into a trade or an art institute or into a career that doesn't require college, I'm not going to stop them. I want them to be happy with their career choice and if they can make a bundle doing it, that's a bonus.

    I'm saving in a 529 for both, but if they don't go to college, I'll roll that into an IRA.

  • Pi Guy||

    50% of all spending in the state of MD goes to education (about a fifth of that to higher ed).

    That's, like, almost half!

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Heh heh.

  • crazyfingers||

    Gold is a bargain at under $1600 given the certain fundamentals the USD is facing.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    I am a prof. at a large public university. I can tell you that the best solution regarding college costs is two-fold: First, free the universities from the state by cutting all funding but allow universities the right to set their own tuition, etc. Second, eliminate all government funded loans. The transition to both of these situations could be gradual (say over 5 years). Additionally, if the states were to demand continuance of taxation of their populace to support higher ed, then a voucher system could work. I prefer eliminating state interaction with education entirely.

  • wareagle||

    so you're saying you generally eat lunch by yourself. Not arguing with your points, but they have to be in the minority where you are.

  • Being Waterboarded||

    I am definitely in the minority here at the U. Most want to fix the problems by simply convincing the state legislature to up our funding again...

  • Dillon||

    Shit? We'll be eating shit right? I'm pretty sure Matt means we'll be eating shit.

  • Drake||

    When reality conflicts with beliefs, people retreat from reality. That makes them look stupid.

    Looking at the debt and unfunded commitments is horrifying. The weak-minded simply retreat into ideology, hate, blame, etc...

    It's so bad that they just pretend to care, and to be doing something. Meaningless tax increases or cuts. Promises of future spending cuts (or slower growth). None of it means anything except political talking points.

  • Loki||

    if they ask, I will come!

    Teenage Girl #1: "Ew"
    Teenage Girl #2: "Seriously"
    Teenage Girl #3: "That is so gross"

  • Rasilio||

    ROTFL

    You win the Internet

  • Jesse James Dean||

    Says who?

  • terrymac||

    "There isn’t a politician alive who doesn’t understand that the current trend is unsustainable. Yet there are virtually no politicians who have placed this national interest at the center of their agenda."

    Two obvious choices come to mind: Dr. Ron Paul and Gary Johnson. There are also Rand Paul and Justin Amash.

  • ||

    Politicians trade in votes. Telling people the truth and making intelligent decisions yields no benefit in votes. In fact, it is normally punished with a diminishing amount of votes. Consequently, few politicians have any interest in addressing real problems. It would be irrational for them to do so since it would work against their own self interest. In a democratic representative government, we really do get the government we want/deserve. Being right and being in the minority doesn't win you any points. You just get to go down with the ship.

  • lunettes de soleil pas cher||

    If there is a lesson to be gleaned from the charade of student loan politicking, it is that nothing gets the competitive juices of Democrats and Republicans flowing quite like the opportunity to promise “free” money to favored constituencies—a fact that helps explain our acceleration toward the fiscal cliff. They prefer to campaign on these small differences in patronage methodologies, while condemning the unforgivable venality of the other guys, rather than take the political risk of dealing forthrightly with mathematically untenable budgets.

  • MSimon||

    I note up thread that no one has answered my fundamental question:

    "Who would you prefer to be the premiere military on the planet"

    Instead I get a bunch of non answers and diversions.

    So no, the era of the 30s was not libertarian in the West (or any where else) except for the anti-military sentiment.

    It emboldened the Germans who were convinced because of this sentiment that the West would not fight. I believe "they are worms" was the essence of the concept in Germany. You can look it up.

  • Concerned Citizen||

    It doesn't matter. No one can afford to attack America now, nor will they, as they whole world is a welfare state shithole. We have enough firepower in our submarines alone to incinerate the world. So I'm all for Ron Paul's foreign policy, bring the troops home, let the world settle their own problems. Who's going to fuck with us?

  • ||

    It was more war weariness than principle non-interventionism that drove the appeasement mentality in Europe in the run up to WWII. If you flip a couple pages back in your history book, you might notice that WWI ended only 21 years before the start of WWII and was, up to that point in history, the most casualty-intensive global conflict of all time. Trench warfare, mustard gas, machine guns, tanks, air combat, and submarine warfare were unknown prior to WWI and had caused atrocities that were so truly historic at the time that we cannot in any way comprehend today, living as we do in a world where such implements have always existed. 21 years off of a war that cost about 10 million military deaths, not to mention several major economies, it's not difficult to understand why Europe was not collectively thrilled about the prospect of another continent-wide military conflict. I believe "Oh shit, not another 10 million dead lads and billion dollars in war debt" was the essence of the concept across the continent. You can look it up.

    (continued)

  • ||

    In any case, neither Europe nor the United States was collectively swept up in a libertarian craze that led to taking a principled homeland-defense-only stand against intervention starting in the mid 1930's. Europe was still recovering from the wounds of the last war and reticent to dive back into it. Most wanted to finish rebuilding their decimated cities, balance sheets, and families. In fact, at the same time that non-interventionism was popular, so was domestic socialism and technocracy - the antithesis of libertarian philosophy. It wasn't libertarians that brought you WWII. And if you're concerned with the rise of Russia as a global military power, you'd do well to remember that it was WWII and its aftermath that put Russia into that position. Sometimes global military intervention has unintended consequences.

    If America's status as a global military power wasn't in question 10 years ago when we were spending $350 billion on defense, I doubt it's going to suffer if we trim it back from the $700 billion we spend today. Eliminating the entire DOD would still leave us around $600 billion short of closing our annual deficit, mind you, but $350 billion used to sound like a lot of money. Nevertheless, failing to throw our money down 2 sinkholes in the middle east probably isn't going to compromise our status as the world's premiere military. We have enough leftover nuclear weapons from the 1950's to accomplish that even if we cut our military budget in half tomorrow.

  • Mike0oSS||

    Rep. Ron Paul tried for years to tell Americans the truth they hated to hear from him. They hated his views so much they turned him out every time he tried to tell them we are going broke from monetary policy and spending, and all this world policing is killing our budget, and our people. Americans don't want the truth, they want their "Extra Big Assed Fries" with that order. Quote from the mechanical vendor in Idiocracy.....

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