If you want to understand the looming debt crisis, watch the 2008 documentary I.O.U.S.A. Scrupulously fair and nonpartisan, its story, about the danger posed by America’s ballooning national debt, is divided into four sections, each of which describes a particular deficit that has made our debt crisis possible: the “budget deficit,” which includes not only current spending but currently unfunded liabilities; the “savings deficit” that results when people live beyond their means and don’t save; the “balance of payments deficit,” which includes but isn’t limited to the well-publicized trade deficit; and the “leadership deficit,” which basically includes our entire governing class with a few exceptions.
To these, I would like to add the “Menschkeit deficit.” Menschkeit is the state of being a mensch, the Yiddish word that describes someone whose life is characterized by “rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, and [responsibility.]”
The Menschkeit deficit matters because in a democracy, with a few legendary exceptions, elected officials tend to follow the lead of nineteenth-century French politician Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, who is supposed to have said, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” (This is why the Founding Fathers distrusted democracy.)
And where “the people” want to go is a kind of political-economic Big Rock Candy Mountain where “your birthday comes around once a week and it’s Christmas every day.” It’s a place where “you never have to clean your room or put your toys away” because your “leaders” have pledged that they will make someone else do it. Try to lead “the people” anywhere else and you are very likely to become a former leader.
The recent elections were no exception, all the talk about the deficit notwithstanding. Granted, my opinion of the tea party phenomenon is probably a lot closer to Matt Taibbi’s hilarious, albeit profane, take in Rolling Stone, than that of most of the regular visitors to this website.
In it, Taibbi describes an epiphany he had while attending a tea party convention in Louisville. He noticed that many of the attendees were sitting on “motorized wheelchair-scooters.” The person next to him explained that the “scooters are because of Medicare . . . Practically everyone in Kentucky has one.”
“People in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries. . . . If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.” Neither can I. It’s the Menschkeit deficit on wheels.
It’s why the most potent issue in the recent elections wasn’t the deficit—it was the proposed $500 billion in Medicare “cuts” over the next ten years that are supposed to pay for “Obamacare.” To paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, everyone is entitled to their own opinion on “Obamacare” and health care policy in general, but not to their own facts, and the facts are these: health care costs are the biggest driver of our ballooning national debt.
We can, and probably will, tweak Social Security so that the system remains solvent but providing health care to an aging population is what will break the bank, especially with the addition of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit. You can be a true “deficit hawk” or a supporter of the health care status quo but you cannot honestly be both. That we think otherwise testifies to the power of the Menschkeit deficit.
A similar lack of responsibility is on display in our thinking about the balance of payments deficit. We have been hearing a great deal about how much we owe China and this has many people worried. While this is understandable, the fact remains that half of the trade deficit doesn’t come from buying Chinese or anyone else’s manufactured goods—it comes from importing oil.
At this point, the problems and even perils associated with our dependence on imported oil are so obvious than even an australopithecine can get it. But, apparently, not many Americans. Case in point I: A few weeks ago, I was watching a muscle car auction on television. While showing off a fully-restored 1962 Impala, the announcer pointed to its bulbous windshield and told viewers that such a detail would be impossible today due to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards and added that these standards were about to get even more “burdensome.”
Case in point II: The incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee has pledged to save the incandescent light bulb. His “Better Use of Light Bulbs Act” would repeal efficiency standards that would in effect mandate a switch to compact fluorescent bulbs (CFBs) and later to bulbs using Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs).
Now, I appreciate the classic Impala look as much as anybody else. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of checking out the new cars at the beginning of the new model year each autumn. I understand the appeal of brake horsepower and zero-to-sixty times in the sub six-second range. And I wish that it didn’t take so long for the room to light up with CFBs.
But, given how much our dependence on foreign oil is costing us, and how much we could save through simple conservation, I can’t help but think that a society that can’t forego some horsepower and change a stinking light bulb is beyond remedy. If, given what’s at stake, waiting an extra few seconds for the room to brighten or drive a somewhat smaller and more fuel-efficient car is too much to ask, then talk about “sacrifice” isn’t hollow—it’s a vacuum.
The odd thing about the Menschkeit deficit is that many of the people exhibiting its symptoms are, in other areas of life, rather mensch-like. They’re stand-up guys (and gals) who behave responsibly and who cannot fairly be accused of lacking a sense of right and wrong. Yet, all of this disappears on the political level: it’s easier to get my son to postpone gratification than it is to get many American voters to do the same.
Maybe I’m giving them too much credit—maybe what I’m calling “mensch-like” is actually a kind of superficial virtue made possible by abundance and now that the good times have ended their inner unmensch has emerged.
There’s another alternative: the Menschkeit deficit is the product of defective thinking. We find it hard to do what’s necessary because we’re in the thrall of an illusion, a belief that causes us to think that we don’t have to make difficult choices because somehow, unlike other countries, we are special.
In other words, we may be the victims of American exceptionalism, which is the subject of my next column.