Dec 22, 2011
A Christmas Carol is one of the great attacks on money-grubbing in Western literature. And if you’re talking about the federal budget, then Scrooge is usually invoked as an example of cold-hearted budget cutting. A Christmas Carol’s messages seem pretty obvious: Money isn’t everything. Don’t forget the poor and starving. Miserliness never pays.
All very true.
But there’s another message here, too. One of the most famous scenes comes when the silent, relentless Ghost of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer Scrooge his own lonely grave.
“Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?” Scrooge begs. “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me!”
If you’re looking for a subtext for our fiscal situation, that about sums it up: deciding the difference between what will be and what might be.
What may be is frightening enough to satisfy the Ghost of Christmas Future. All the government’s own budget agencies concur that we’re on an unsustainable course in the long term. In this case, the long term isn’t that far off – some results, like having every tax dollar go to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the national debt, may be only 10 years away. We’re on a path that could lead to an European-style debt crisis.
That isn’t the only risk. Our sluggish bounce back from the Great Recession could become a “lost decade” of slow growth and missed opportunities. The pain of 9 percent unemployment, mortgages under water and an increasing income gap doesn’t bode well for the future, either.
Properly guiding the federal budget is about building the future you want – and averting the future you don’t want. It’s easy, fatally easy, to lose sight of that amidst all the budget drama we’ve been having. But the budget isn’t about the next election, or getting yourself on cable news. It’s about using the money the nation has to get what Americans need most. It’s also about knowing what we have to let go. There are choices to be made, but don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t possible to both strengthen the economy now and avert the fiscal disaster later. There are a half-dozen practical plans out there that do just that, and paths to suit every ideology.
What we’re lacking is resolution: a belief that things have to change, and a willingness to make choices to make that change happen.
There are plenty in Washington who say the words, but you can’t make resolutions with your fingers crossed. The only thing that saved Scrooge is the fact that he actually did change, and change the world around him. He didn’t delegate the problem to a committee or come up with elaborate plans to force himself to be more charitable. He just did it.
Whatever fiscal future you envision, whatever ideology you prefer, requires defining the future you want, and then taking action to create it. That means setting some priorities, and letting other things go. It means making deals with those in the other party, and building public support so that any plan sticks. Anything else is just trying to fake out the ghost of Christmas future. And that’s not how you prevent the dire world of what might be from becoming the world that actually exists.