Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slow-Moving Disasters

I was watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode from Hawaii last night, and he visits the house of a man living in the path of a lava flow. The fellow had been there over two decades after most of his neighbors had left. Eventually, he knew, the lava would arrive, but instead of using the time to move and start a new life, he just sat and waited. (A voiceover from Bourdain noted that he was forcibly evacuated a few weeks later as the lava crept in.)

Most people would dismiss this man as a nut, and yet at the communal level we are doing exactly the same thing. I was struck by this "I told you so" article from Edward Achorn in the Providence Journal: he is able to document time after time that debt and pension problems were called out and dismissed by Rhode Island's governing class. Here is one example from eight years ago:
From “The faces ignored on Smith Hill,” Aug. 12, 2003:

Many legislators dismissed growing annual pension costs as small potatoes. I wrote: “$20 million-plus is still worth debate in most people’s books. And the costs are exploding: Pension contributions for state workers and teachers are slated to go up $60 million in the next year, says Mr. Carcieri. This would seem to present a crisis that cannot be ignored.”

(Now, in 2011, of course, the state confronts pension costs growing by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.)

Steven Costantino, then vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, accused the pension reformers of trying to stir up emotions. “You simply can’t cherry-pick an issue which is a hot button or a good sound bite,” he said.
Now, no one wants budget cutbacks or austerity or people to go without benefits they were expecting to get. Despite what Constantino is quoted as saying above, all the emotions are on the side of the people who say that we should keep things as they are. The man who stays in a house surrounded by lava points to his view and says, "I can't give this up." He looks around his house and says, "I've built a life here and I don't want to change." It's hard to say, "If I make this difficult decision now, I can start to build a new life and eventually will be better off." But that's the adult decision to make.

Our debt burden is like a lava flow: it moves slow but will overwhelm us eventually. Anyone who looks at the books and projects out can see the disaster coming. As Walter Russell Mead said in a recent piece, "We can no longer stimulate the economy successfully by encouraging more and more people to assume higher levels of debt." That goes for government debt as well as individual debt. But we've grown addicted to the things that the debt buys, and we know change is going to be hard, maybe even tragic for some people who fall through a crack as the system changes.

I'm becoming increasingly pessimistic about our chances of solving this problem before an actual crisis hits: as Americans, we're good at reacting when our backs our against the wall, but we stink about staying away from the wall in the first place. So perhaps the best policy for those of us concerned about the debt is to have a plan in place for the day that the impending crisis becomes an active catastrophe.

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