The deficit Americans should think about most: personal character
Our huge public debt ultimately reflects our lack of individual restraint. But we can do better.
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Facing huge budget shortfalls, states like California and New York are considering radical cuts to balance their books. President Obama acknowledged the seriousness of the problem in his State of the Union message, calling it a "mountain" that could bury us and urging a five-year partial budget freeze. The president is right to admonish us about the magnitude of the problem that he helped mightily to exacerbate. Political leaders who are serious about fiscal discipline deserve some credit for finally acting to correct course.
But even the most aggressive measures to reform federal spending won't address the underlying cause of our public debt.
That's because the deficit that matters most is not denominated in dollars at all. Its currency is of the heart and mind. It's a manifestation of the values with which we circumscribe our actions, our purposes, and our values. I speak of a deficit of character, which arguably is the root of all of our major economic and social troubles today.
Your character is not defined by what you say you believe. It's defined by the choices you make. History painfully records that when a people allow their personal character to dissipate, they become putty in the hands of tyrants and demagogues. Such tyranny often takes the form of actual rulers, but it can also involve the serfdom of our nobler nature to a lord of lustful impulse. Decadence can destroy democracy as surely as dictatorship.
Among the traits that define strong character are honesty, humility, responsibility, self-discipline, courage, self-reliance, and long-term thinking. A free society is not possible without these traits in widespread practice.
How we subtract from our character
When a person spurns his conscience and fails to do what he knows is right, he subtracts from his character. When he evades his responsibilities, foists his problems and burdens on others, or fails to exert self-discipline; when he allows or encourages wrongdoing on any scale; when he attempts to reform the world without reforming himself first; when he obligates the yet-unborn to pay his current bills for him; when he expects politicians to solve problems that are properly his own business alone; he subtracts from his character – and drags the rest of us down, too.
Mountainous debts, unconscionable deficits, irresponsible bailouts, and reckless spending: These are all economic problems because they sprang first from character problems.
Reform starts with recognition. Not the easy kind that points out flaws in others, but the hard kind that reflects on, then roots out, errors in ourselves.
Is it wrong to take a dollar from the responsible and give it to the irresponsible? Of course it is, which is why so many of us decry the billion-dollar bailouts given to reckless but politically well-connected government agencies and private firms. Yet how many of us accepted taxpayer-funded aid when we fell behind on mortgage payments for homes we never should have bought?