Certainly the attention devoted to this subject over the past few years has been huge, but as Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff point out in their excellent treatment, This Time It’s Different, these numbers reflect conditions that kill countries. Indeed, instead of treating the greatest country on earth like a pampered and suicidal adolescent, American leaders must grasp that nations crumble under such debt; nations and empires and entire civilizations. Further, viable alternatives have been offered as well, including those advocated by a bipartisan Senate group as well as those from the president’s own debt commission, and most recently, by Congressman Paul Ryan.
So, what is the solution? Honesty and courage. Honesty on the part of our political leaders to explain America’s perilous situation and courage to do something about it, regardless of consequences to their own political careers, or even to their lives. Both traits were illustrated in a marvelous vignette recounted by Joseph Ellis in his Founding Brothers. After signing the document that pitted the newly proclaimed country against the most formidable world power the world had ever known, Benjamin Harrison quipped to Elbridge Gerry that his size and weight gave him a greater advantage over his smaller colleague, in that when they were all hung for treason, the corpulent Mr. Harrison “would die in a few minutes,” whereas the lighter Mr. Gerry would “dance in the air an hour or two before [he is] dead.”
These men were honest about the stakes involved, which they faced with resolution and courage and, if necessary, their lives. Today’s circumstances require no less.