The great Japanese theater tradition of Kabuki reflects a stylized avant garde theater of the bizarre to dramatize the juxtaposition of the inner and outer emotions of the participants. Grand kabuki is going on these days regarding the debt ceiling “crisis” in Washington, and the lead actor of the bizarre is our president himself, who has played multiple roles in the last week of the “sage adult”, “budget warrior”, “aggrieved victim”, and “petulant child”. It would approach comical if it wasn’t so darn serious and sad at the same time.
In the grand tradition of kabuki, this story is predominantly one of tragedy. The most self-sufficient country on earth has managed to amass a 14.5 trillion dollar debt and over 4 trillion of it was prodigiously produced in just the last three years. The government currently borrows 43 cents on every dollar it spends and there is no end in sight. In this particular theatrical tragedy, the president warns of the calamity that will befall us if we don’t raise the debt limit allowing us to continue to sew the seeds of our own destruction, not the calamity that will befall us if we continue to spend like spendaholics and accumulate even more massive debt for us and our children. The shared responsibility of the accumulated debt for each of the over three hundred million Americans is a nice round number of about 45, 000 dollars per citizen, and that does not include the unfathomable sum of 100 trillion more of estimated unfunded liabilities.
What does our Kabuki grand master say about such dire scenarios? Well, its obvious to him that the obstruction to fiscal sanity is the rich not paying their fair share. That’s an effective mask to wear when emoting in front of a hurting American public, but the facts would suggest that if President Obama succeeded at confiscating 100% of the earnings of the top ten percent of the country in taxes, he would manage to pay off a third of the total budget he currently spends in a single fiscal year. Nice start and sorry about that confiscation angle, but clearly that rhetoric doesn’t even remotely budge the burgeoning debt exposure.
The apparently difficult thing for everyone to understand is that if you spend considerably more than your income, the best way to reduce your fiscal vulnerability is to only spend maximally what your income is. Certainly we can even argue that spending every last dollar of your income is probably not good budget management either, in that one would hope there would always be savings for future needs. Instead we are spending for past needs, present needs, and future needs all on present income. Somehow the government senses we will figure a way in the future to fix the mess when the problem has ballooned to even more stratospheric levels when we find our currently collective will to solve it now is non-existent. This is what George Will of the Washington Post refers to as the government’s “terrifying self-confidence”.
The actors in kabuki are participants in a play where the greater audience can see the unfolding tragedy and are powerless to stop it. The issue fundamentally will never be whether the United States should be permitted to default on the money it is indebted to pay. The issue is whether we will ever ask ourselves again as adults used to do in this country,what are we spending money on, is it money well spent, and can we afford it. People in Washington DC, come on! The play is over, real life is here, and its time to put away the masks and the party favors.