On the Rasmussen Reports website today, Americans for Limited Government chairman Howie Rich has a great read on the divergent trends in consumer and public debt:
What's even more revealing than the irresponsible spending binges that took place during good economic times? How differently consumers and politicians are handling the current recession - which is now entering its twenty-second month. While government continues to spend more money faster than at any time in its history, consumers - for the first time ever - are steadily decreasing their debt.[...]
The bottom line is simple: Faced with difficult economic times, consumers are doing what they have to do - spending less and paying down debt at record levels. Government on the other hand has decided to go in precisely the opposite direction - escalating its spending addiction to a level that defies not only common sense, but comprehension.
Quite frankly, it's the sort of behavior that would land an individual in rehab, not a position of public trust. [...]
Clearly, the American public has read the handwriting on the wall and is working to limit its liability in the face of dire economic circumstances. Why is government not doing the same thing?
You could answer that question in a lot of different ways, explaining the vagaries of political will, political ambition, etc., but I think it may go even deeper.
Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living, but that shouldn't stop at the personal level. I'd extend that sentiment to the public sphere as well—the unexamined government is not worth funding.
On your next visit to the local bookstore, try spending five minutes casually flipping through some books in the selp-improvement aisle. I guarantee that you will quickly come to the conclusion that a little introspection can go a long way in life.
Spend another five minutes and a few common themes might start to emerge. Some common, personal psychological challenges include narcissism, hubris, self-delusion and the big one—lack of boundaries. These challenges conspire to wreak varying degrees of havoc in people's lives. For example, we all know someone (or are someone) that keeps ending up in the same dysfunctional relationship pattern over and over again, either with the same partner or a string of different partners. Or we all know someone that stays in a relationship that doesn't work.
Even though the real problem may be that person's own lack of boundaries, self-delusion and hubris may prevent them from ever seeing it and breaking the cycle of dysfunction. A classic "it's them, not me" situation.
What many people fail to realize is that these sorts of problems don't disappear when you zoom up to the collective level, they just change shape. After all, we elect people to office with this type of psychological baggage, we hire public employees with this baggage—it doesn't get checked at the door. So it's almost inevitable that left unchecked or unexamined, collective government action will tend to spiral into variations on the same dysfunctional themes.
Hubris is one. The spectacle of federal bailouts, stimulus and industry intervention offer a great example in that the feds keep defaulting to a classic "Superman" mindset. "We can do it all. We can control the economy. We can run auto companies. We can create a successful national health care system with no damage even as our previous mega-entitlements threaten to drive our economy into the ground. We can kill outsourcing contracts and do it all in-house. We can rack up more and more public debt with no consequences."
Then there's self-delusion. "The stimulus is working. We need to hire hundreds of thousands of new federal employees at a time of historic deficits and unsustainable employee pay and benefits. We can raise taxes and become more prosperous. We can create a successful national health care system with no damage even as our previous mega-entitlements threaten to drive our economy into the ground." (sorry, but that last one deserves repeating)
Narcissism abounds. "We have pulled this economy back from the brink," as a very recent example. The examples of narcissism among our elected officials and bureaucracies are on display every day on the nightly news in one form or another.
With hubris, self-delusion and narcissism at play, then you will inevitably end up with what we have in DC today—an expansive government with fewer and fewer boundaries that perpetually whistles past the economic graveyard and ignores the fiscal writing on the wall.
Maybe Howie Rich is onto something with the rehab idea...