The Romney campaign is running two especially strong ads which call attention to our mounting national debt. One of them is a direct response to Obama???s ???War on Women??? narrative, in which a newborn girl learns how much debt Barack Obama piled on her shoulders while she grew in the womb:
The second quotes one of the more haunting images from a Romney speech, comparing the national debt to a prairie fire. Romney isn???t normally the best painter of evocative imagery, but he did a great job with this one:
One of the great challenges faced by any candidate wishing to seriously contend with America???s debt problem is that public debt still feels abstract to many people. It???s still just numbers on a spreadsheet somewhere. They don???t fear receiving an invoice for their $50,000 share of Obama debt in the mail.
This is the essential political strategy of every form of socialism: concrete benefits with diffuse costs. The benefits of government largesse are real and immediate to everyone dependent upon them. Of course, few people like to think of themselves as ???dependent,??? so with Orwellian sleight of hand, these benefits are re-imagined as ???entitlements??? or ???public resources.???
An entitlement is something you own, so the beneficiary does not feel any shame when collecting his ???property,??? and is prone to view efforts at restricting his benefits as tantamount to theft. Public resources are something we all ???own??? collectively. The lowest tax brackets are strongly encouraged to think of themselves as full ???owners,??? even though they pay nowhere near a truly fair share of the costs, compared with the immense tax burdens carried by the upper income brackets. In fact, they???ve lately been encouraged to think of themselves as more entitled to claim righteous ownership of public resources, because the highest tax brackets have somehow abused or stolen those resources to build the ill-gotten fortunes they insist upon hoarding.
The cost of all these government programs ??? whose benefits, naturally, are loudly touted by the political class – is diffuse to the point of invisibility. Not a single American, from the poorest food-stamp recipient to the wealthiest investor, knows what his true tax burden is. Few of us could get within ten or twenty percent of the correct number. No one talks about opportunity costs ??? what the private sector could have done, absent government control ??? at all. The alternative to Big Government is always portrayed as ruin and chaos, as in Barack Obama???s famous ???jobs created or saved??? argument, in which he claimed credit for every job that would have hypothetically been lost without his intervention.
And deficit spending? Why, that???s so invisible that it barely registers on the public mind at all. Who cares if a government folder somewhere is stuffed with I.O.U.s? Nobody will ever call in those markers, right? We can just borrow money forever. We survived $5 trillion, $10 trillion, $15 trillion in debt??? why let another billion here or there get in the way of important government programs? The depressing effects of deficit spending on the economy are not often reported to the public. Virtually everything else, up to and including the weather, is more likely to be blamed for economic downturns first.
The thing is, we???re very close to the moment when the weight of the national debt becomes painfully real and obvious to everyone. It will happen when America???s credit rating degrades enough to dramatically increase the cost of debt service. We took another step toward that fate when the Eagan-Jones agency downgraded our credit rating again last week. A lot of the other rating agencies are waiting until 2013 to conclude whether our debt spiral is unbreakable.
And when they do, the prairie fire Mitt Romney described will finally begin consuming everyone???s front porch. Even the ???free riders??? will notice when hundreds of millions of dollars vanish from the Treasury for debt service, and it becomes impossible to sell new debt??? or even buy it from ourselves, which is how this ridiculous system is being sustained right now. Every one of us will very definitely notice when monetary policy support for horrendous fiscal policy triggers hyperinflation. And these things will happen fast.
We probably won???t get another chance to avoid that fate. Barack Obama is absolutely incapable of even understanding the problem, let alone implementing a solution.