No Comment — December 18, 2007, 8:32 am

Obligations Ignored

This morning we pick up the newspaper or turn on the broadcast news and hear a mixture of seasonal human-interest stories. Then the “real” news drum starts. Jacko has made an appearance looking like a mummy. The Russians, it seems, have delivered fuel for a nuclear reactor to Iran. The religiously tinged battles between Huckabee and Romney continue for another day. Did another Clinton aide raise a question about Obama’s childhood? There are more murmurings in the subprime market. And a recent Hollywood film is a flop. I searched everywhere for a report of what I considered to be the really important news of the prior day. I rifled through the A-section, the B-section, the financial news. But the gurus of the press room had apparently decided it wasn’t news at all. Nothing on the television either. Of course, how could it compete with the failure of a Hollywood blockbuster-to-be?

So here it is, an obscure speech delivered by an obscure person, with a message that no one wants to hear:

For the 11th year in a row, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was prevented from expressing an opinion on the consolidated financial statements of the U.S. government–other than the Statement of Social Insurance–because of serious material weaknesses affecting financial systems, fundamental recordkeeping, and financial reporting.

David M. Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States and head of GAO, did note some progress in this year’s audit. This year GAO expressed an unqualified opinion on the fiscal year 2007 Statement of Social Insurance, which includes the Social Security, Medicare, Railroad Retirement, and Black Lung programs. This is significant because the statement covers some of the largest numbers in the federal government–tens of trillions of present-value dollars associated with future social insurance expenditures.

Overall, however, Walker was not satisfied. In a speech today at the National Press Club, he said, “If the federal government was a private corporation and the same report came out this morning, our stock would be dropping and there would be talk about whether the company’s management and directors needed a major shake-up.” Walker urged greater transparency and accountability over the federal government’s operations, financial condition, and fiscal outlook.

Despite improvements in financial management since the U.S. government began preparing consolidated financial statements more than a decade ago, three major impediments prevent the U.S. government from obtaining a clean opinion: (1) serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense, (2) the federal government’s inability to adequately account for and reconcile intragovernmental activity and balances between federal agencies, and (3) the federal government’s ineffective process for preparing the consolidated financial statements.

“Until the problems outlined in our audit report are adequately addressed, they will continue to have adverse implications for the federal government and American taxpayers,” Walker said in a letter to the President and Congress. “The federal government’s fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000,” Walker said. “This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household.”

Now the essence of the word “conservative” lies in the art of preservation. Holding on to that which is useful from the past. Recognizing an obligation to the next generation. Time was, when publications like the Wall Street Journal would lambaste the government for its fiscal irresponsibility, and broadcasters like Fox News would chime in. Of course, they kept this steady drone during the Clinton era. And the truth was that during the Clinton presidency, the American Government was a modern model of fiscal responsibility, actually producing a series of surplus years, and starting the process of taking down the national debt.

With the arrival of George W. Bush, all proper stewardship of the economy has been thrown to the winds in favor of a quick joy ride for a team of power-crazy leaders. The cost of this presidency, put in dollars and cents through today, is $32 trillion dollars. That’s a 150% increase in exposure since the reins of office were handed to George W. Bush.

At the same time, the really, truly wealthy—the top half per cent of income earners in the United States—have spectacularly increased their wealth. This accumulation of wealth can be linked directly to the skyrocketing national debt. It’s as if a team of professional burglars were set loose within the national treasury.

Where are the voices of accountability? Gone silent. It turns out that the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal and the editors of Fox News never had any serious interest in fiscal prudence. They had a simple agenda: putting their friends in the White House. And that’s the agenda they continue to serve to this day.

I travel abroad quite a bit. I pick up a publications abroad, like Handelsblatt in Germany, or the Financial Times in Britain, and I read serious worries about the American economy. The dollar has cratered, and our old friends are convinced that our economy is badly mismanaged—spending is out of control, and our currency is no longer viewed as the shelter in a global storm that it once was. Abroad the alarm bells are ringing. And at home, anxiety is on the rise, anger is building, but the population as a whole, and even the figures who shape opinion, are oblivious to the nation’s crippling fiscal mismanagement.

So today the Comptroller General of the United States delivers a crushing verdict. But it’s not news. Americans don’t want to hear it. They’d rather be thinking about their holiday shopping. They’d rather be building up credit card debt, not investments or savings.

A war is waged. And then another. And then a proxy war or two or three. But under George W. Bush, war entails no sacrifice for the people. Why if it did, the people might actually awaken from their stupor and ask questions about the war. James Madison was adamant, and he was joined on this by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—each generation must bear the costs of its own wars. It is the gravest irresponsibility to incur long-term debt to fight wars, mortgaging the nation’s future, casting manacles for the coming generations to wear. The Founding Fathers understood a fundamental principle: the moral obligation of those who rule to those who will follow in their wake.

And if there is one single fault of the Bush-Cheney Administration that will haunt it beyond all the others, then it is this: they recognize no duty to posterity. They consume and squander shamelessly. And they mortgage the nation’s future in the process.

Their fiscal conduct matches perfectly their irresponsibility on the premier science issue of our generation: global warming. They repudiated the Kyoto Accords. And in its wake they offered not leadership for the global community, but blissful sleep. Forget about it, they said, this is all a bunch of environmental crazies. And they introduced the new Lysenkoism—pseudoscience that replaced serious science, especially when issues of global warming and profligate consumption of hydrocarbons were on the agenda. Real scientists were ordered to be silent or be fired. Young political hacks were installed within the science agencies as their new voice. The Bush Administration has been the very model of moral irresponsibility.

Remember that young man with the alcohol and coke habit who totaled two cars in the course of a single year before being sent off to Alabama to dry out? He’s now in the White House. And he seems to have found a new drug: raw political power.

The ethicist Hans Jonas–the Heidegger student who settled in New Rochelle, New York–distinguishes the ethics of antiquity from that of the modern age on one significant point. In antiquity, thinkers were not conscious of limits on the materials resources at their command. Today they must be. We live in a world of finite resources, and as we exhaust them, we affect the parameters for human existence that will follow in our wake. (By the way, some writers of antiquity were conscious of this as well. Consider the opening chorus of Sophocles’s ‘Antigone,’ for instance.)

The performance of our government must be measured not simply in terms of what it does to us today, but also in terms of the world it sculpts, consciously or not, for those who come behind us. We are the guardians of this world. We have this responsibility. And no one bears it more heavily than those who are in power, especially in the nation that consumes the great bulk of the world’s hydrocarbons, spends half of the world’s total budget on military matters, and is creating an enduring monument to fiscal irresponsibility with its national debt.

No. Today’s newspapers won’t carry this story. But generations that come behind us will be manacled by it.

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