By Andrew F. Smith
What exactly constitutes a crisis? I dare say that we unequivocally can employ this term to characterize the horrific situation in Japan unfolding in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami. Does the same hold, if certainly not to such a grievous extent, of the federal deficit—the excess of government spending over revenue—in the United States? I for one do not believe so.
The federal government is not broke, as one prominent Republican congressman has repeatedly claimed. “A country with a deficit is not necessarily any more ‘broke’ than a family with a mortgage or a college loan,” economist and political commentator Paul Krugman recently declared. In turn, David J. Lynch of Bloomberg News notes the following:
The U.S. today is able to borrow at historically low interest rate, paying 0.68 percent on a two-year note that it had to offer at 5.1 percent before the financial crisis began in 2007. Financial products that pay off if Uncle Sam defaults aren’t attracting unusual investor demand. And tax revenue as a percentage of the economy is at a 60-year low, meaning if the government needs to raise cash and can summon the political will, it could do so.
Furthermore, while especially vocal Republicans maintain that deep spending cuts are necessary to spur the sort of confidence in the business community that would lead its members to begin mass hiring, we should be skeptical about this conclusion. For but one counterexample, the British government implemented quite severe austerity measures last spring, but business confidence has not bounced back. It has continued to spiral downward. As a result, cutting spending actually has contributed to even slower growth. This has decreased tax revenue, which has ended up offsetting expected deficit reductions.
This is not to say, of course, that the U.S. is in strong fiscal shape. Many jurisdictions throughout the nation are in serious economic distress. But there are a number of ways to meet this challenge, especially given that the nation is still quite affluent as a whole and the wealthiest of Americans are doing exceptionally well. Cutting spending is hardly the only approach that can be taken, and it may well be considerably less effective than other options. If American citizens and legislators alike have the wherewithal to explore all possible options—to deliberate together about which prospective solutions are likely to prove most effective—the U.S. can weather the current economic storm.
But this proposition does reveal the existence of a true crisis in American society. Americans largely have lost the capacity to engage in public deliberation, particularly with political opponents. Increasingly, we have given up on the idea that there is anything of substance to debate about. We—the members of my political tribe—are right; we have privileged access to deep political truths. You—my adversaries—are fundamentally misguided. And it is not merely that we are engaged in a reasonable disagreement. You are benighted or blinded by ideology or the bald pursuit of power. You are just plain stupid, or devious, and or even downright unpatriotic.
This crisis thus is not about the economic difficulties we face or even the measures that are employed to face them. It is instead about the lack of willingness (let alone substantive forums) to engage in processes in which we must countenance and sincerely debate about the viability of competing policy proposals. There is a host of good reasons to be skeptical that such willingness can be widely cultivated anytime soon. But this does not mean Americans should simply give up on this proposition. Indeed, the fate of our nation—the health of which depends on flexible and adaptable governance—depends on it.
If citizens and legislators alike are people of conscience—if we care deeply about abiding our convictions, as most of us claim—we should refuse to choose expediency over honor in the pursuit of our aims. We must treat our convictions as they deserve to be treated: as ideas with the normative power to be appealing in their own right and, conversely, as improper instruments for coercion. Why should we deliberate? Because to do otherwise would be unbecoming. It would tarnish our convictions and be self-demeaning to boot. So while nothing less than the fate of the nation may ride on fostering deliberative engagement, the same may be said of our own moral and epistemic well-being.
Andrew F. Smith is assistant professor of philosophy at Drexel University and the author of The Deliberative Impulse: Motivating Discourse in Divided Societies.