During the four year period ending in 2012, we, the American people, will have consumed an astronomical $5.25 trillion more government than we paid for. Rather than tighten our belts with everyone taking less and many contributing more, we chose instead to consume at an unprecedented pace -- and leave it to our children to pay for our profligacy. That this was necessary "fiscal stimulus" is utter nonsense. This was a level of cowardice and selfishness never before witnessed in American history.
The mismatch between consumption and revenues of the past four years has been approached only once in our long history. During World War II, by necessity the American people also ran up enormous cash deficits -- in the interest of saving Western civilization. But they paid dearly in other ways: 26 million served in uniform with over one million casualties and nearly 400,000 fatalities while 100 million "civilians" on the home front made enormous personal and financial sacrifices. This was America's "Greatest Generation." I shudder to think what history will call us.
With all the rhetoric and finger-pointing between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, the 1% and the 99%, all have been part of the problem and no one has mustered the courage to tell it like it is. Our generation of leadership (all of us old enough to vote in this democracy) is an unrivaled disgrace. Never have so many consumed so much with such disregard for the future. Never before has one generation of Americans failed to provide greater opportunity for the next.
It took only twelve years for the post-war American public to pay down their war debts and reduce the country's total debt as a percentage of GDP from a high of 122% to its historic level below 60%. Their heroism and continued sacrifice laid the foundation for the peace and extraordinary prosperity that we enjoyed for the next fifty years.
In contrast, we will have increased total national debt from under 60% in 2003 to over 100% of GDP in just nine years. The notion that we can continue to go on like this is pure fantasy. There is a reason we lost our AAA credit rating for the first time in history. At the present levels of spending, debt will have risen in the next decade to over 150% of GDP -- worse than Greece. Quite simply, the federal government is going to have to be scaled back dramatically and those who can will have to pay more for whatever government that we have left.
Governing is about making choices. We can't have everything we want even if it is deemed "good." We are to be sure a rich country. We can and do have more than most, but even we have limits, and we have more than exceeded them. We can't go on indulging every interest group that writes a check in support of our political class, particularly when those favors come at the expense of the interests of our children. There is a point where we have to say "enough" to the environmentalists, the public sector unions, the farmers, the liberal elites, the crony capitalists, and everyone else who is lining up for a piece of the pie. At the same time we need to collect more revenue from those of us who are benefitting most from the opportunities presented by this great country. This is not about "fairness," which is a foolish and divisive slur, but practicality.
We are going to have to shift from consuming to investing in and dare I say sacrificing for future generations as our predecessors did for us. President Obama's Chief of Staff tellingly articulated our current governing philosophy when he said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
But we haven't always been so craven. During the darkest days of the Revolution as George Washington rallied his freezing soldiers for the perilous Delaware crossing, Thomas Paine captured the animating spirit of the generations of Americans who preceded us: "These are the times that try men's souls," he said. "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." And most telling, "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace."
Al Checchi is chairman of Join Together America, the former chairman of Northwest Airlines, and a former candidate for Governor of California. His new book is The Change Maker.