The Hidden Price of Staving off Disaster

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, May 10, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Hidden Price of Staving off Disaster


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

He did not like the question very much. Last Wednesday afternoon, at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's summit on fiscal responsibility, I asked Peter Orszag, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, whether unemployment would have to rise even further for the country to see our long-term economic challenges as a true, rather than a theoretical, crisis. Orszag winced slightly, which speaks well of him as a human being: it would be morally reprehensible to wish more people the pain of joblessness. "The unemployment rate seems pretty high to me," he said, "and the share of the unemployed who are long-term unemployed is also quite elevated."

He is right, of course, but the question was really about the nation's collective moral responsibility, and why it is that we are so fundamentally averse to making difficult decisions. Experience tells us again and again that Americans tend to summon the will to reform themselves only when things are so miserable that it seems the center cannot hold. FDR passed Social Security and much of the New Deal social legislation when unemployment was above 20 percent; civil- and voting-rights bills were successful only after the publication and broadcast of images of the courage of African-Americans enduring white violence and degradation. The legacy of the 2008-09 meltdown is still taking shape, but it appears safe to say that the atmosphere of anxiety that prevailed from the autumn of 2008 through, say, the beginning of this year is unlikely to produce reform on a scale comparable to the New Deal.

I think progressives understand this and may be starting to make some peace with it, however reluctantly. It is, unsurprisingly, conservatives who continue to act as though Barack Obama is the last surviving member of the Politburo. It serves the right's interests to perpetuate that argument: opposition is often a political winner, at least in the short term. The problem for Republicans can be summed up in an old saying attributed to Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House from Texas. It takes a carpenter to build a barn, Speaker Sam was said to have observed, but any jackass can kick one down.

The issues facing us are, as ever, daunting. Peterson, a longtime advocate for fiscal discipline, worries that we are spending ourselves into oblivion, amassing debts we cannot possibly repay and incurring generational obligations through entitlements that will cripple our capacity to invest and innovate. …

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