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Welcome the government spending debate, even if it ain't pretty

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 12:01 am

Summary: The size and scope of our government is in tension with the available dollars we can tax from households and businesses.

These days, it is common to express anger and frustration over D.C. politics. After all, the government shutdown and the impending debt ceiling outcomes will have real consequences for American households and businesses. Moreover, the tone of the debate hardly offers great examples of high-minded rhetoric that fills history books.

Still, anger and frustration by voters simply won't do. It is intellectually lazy, cowardly and un-American to wish that everyone should settle their argument like this is a school playground. We have not had a federal budget since 2009 and a bad budget deal will hurt us all, Democrats and Republicans, perhaps dramatically, perhaps for decades to come. Surely everyone knows that the mechanism and tension of this debate was designed by the founders. What is happening in D.C. today would be recognizable to Madison and Jefferson. One need not be a recent reader of the Federalist Papers to know that the size and scope of our government is in tension with the available dollars we can tax from households and businesses. It has ever been thus, but is so much an issue today that we have doubled all our cumulative borrowing from 1775 to 2008 in the years since. Only an addle-headed moron could suppose we do not need this debate.

It is true enough that the government shutdown inconveniences many, including a large proportion of those who will be most adversely affected by a bad budget deal. I recall several days of cold, dehydrated food during a shutdown while a young soldier in the 1980s. Few today will be so heavily discomfited, but even a week or two of bad meals pales in comparison to the sort of real sacrifice so many have endured to set this nation on a right course. One need not summon the ghosts of Gettysburg to be reminded that our suffering is miniscule. It is fine, of course, to be disappointed at the largely contrived inconvenience of a government shutdown. It is not fine to suppose that the debate should be abandoned because today's troubles are difficult. Courage demands that we recognize and try to reconcile our increasingly larger future problems with debt.

An essential trait of Americans must be that we summon, when needs be, the intellectual courage to tackle our problems. By this I don't mean high-brow intellect, but rather just good common sense born of a willingness to try to understand the problems before us. This government shutdown gets our attention, and should be welcomed by anyone who thinks that a better informed electorate benefits their position. The longer it lasts, the better we will appreciate our budget dilemma, which is why one side is so eager to see it end.

Over the coming days, weeks or months we will collectively debate our national future. We will have to decide whether to cut back spending or roar ahead into fiscal oblivion. The process won't really determine winners and losers from among our political leaders, but whether we all win or lose.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.