Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civics 101: Whose Debt Is It?

This is one of those blog posts that won't get read by the people who need to read it. But I'm going to write it anyway. Maybe I'll get lucky.

As the political debate around the "debt ceiling" heats up, party tribalists out in the trenches are ratcheting up their rhetoric. Hard-core Republicans are posting various messages about "Obama's debt", just as a few years ago hard-core Democrats were casting aspersions on "Bush's debt". Here's a typical example (taken from my FB feed today):

So let's go back and review our basic civics lessons, shall we?

As I've written before, we invest FAR too much important into the Office of the Presidency. Yes, the President is a powerful position with significant influence, and a bipartisan string of presidents (stretching back to Ronald Reagan at least) have been very effective in organizing and using that power.

That being said, it is Congress that produces and passes the US government budget. Only Congress can levy taxes. Only Congress can authorize the spending of money. Ask Ollie North, Robert McFarland, and their colleagues what happens when you spend government money against Congressional orders - it ain't pretty.

So the debt we have? It's been piling up for some time, under a series of Congresses most of which are largely the same as the one before. Re-election rates run over 80% in the Senate and 90% in the House, so with a few changes on the margin this has largely been the same group of 535 people over the last many years.

It's not "Obama's debt". It's not "Bush's debt". Yes, both Presidents (as well as Clinton and their predecessors) suggested things that have either lowered tax revenues or raised spending, or both. All of those things - the ones that have actually contributed to the debt - were voted on and approved by Congress. Many of them enjoyed widespread popular support. I can guarantee you that the people who "like" pictures like the one above almost certainly supported some of the measures that have contributed to the problem they are now complaining about.

This ongoing demonization of the President when he happens to be from the other party is childish and woefully misinformed. Those who engage in it, however cute they think they are being, only reveal (and reinforce) ignorance. Unfortunately, this dynamic has become a serious impediment to real action, or even real conversation about action.

Anybody who thinks they can "win" such an argument, on FB or in any other forum (Fox News, MSNBC, at a town hall meeting, in the local paper), is deluding themselves and feeding their own ego. If we want any kind of constructive discussion about solving problems - and the debt is a very real and significant problem, although we may differ about the nature of it - people plying these kinds of bumper-sticker zingers need to be summarily ignored. If you want to bolster your own ego and feel clever, knock yourself out. But don't expect either attention or respect from the rest of us.

As much as we love arguments as Americans, they're a lousy way to solve problems. If we really want to solve problems, we need to leave behind these "childish ways" and talk like grown-ups. And that starts by taking the President (of whatever party) off the pedestal of blame or credit we place him on, and dealing with the real world.

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