Americans cannot have it both ways
The hurricanes have passed in America but the fiscal damage to the federal government's finances continues, largely because President George W. Bush has not matched his massive federal largesse with equal attention to how the bills will be reckoned. On that front, all the president has offered so far is a gratuitous "We'll cut spending."
Not responsible, at best, but more than disturbing in the face of a looming $400bn federal deficit, a bankrupt Social Security system, an even more bankrupt Medicare programme and the fiscal black hole known as Iraq. Meanwhile, the government's tax take remains at abnormally low levels with summary execution threatened for any politician who dares suggest that even the wealthiest Americans should perhaps pay more.
Much of the blame for this cavalier approach to federal finances can -- and should -- be directed toward Mr Bush. But the Democrats have not offered responsible leadership either, perhaps because both parties' attitudes heavily reflect the tenor of the times.
Welcome to early 21st century America, the "I want it all" society in which no one -- not the lawmakers, not the ruling class and not the ordinary citizens -- stands ready to pay the true costs of the government services that everyone seems to be insisting upon. For America, it is a tragically selfish and cynical period, one in which Mr Bush's pre-Katrina mantra of less government appealed deeply to an electorate eager to be taxed and regulated less but not at all eager (or willing) to make the sacrifices needed to accommodate those reductions.
That societal hypocrisy was perfectly illustrated by Mr Bush's quick pirouette amid Katrina's political and economic fall-out, from getting government out of the way to getting government into the mix, with a plethora of new relief programmes.
It is equally well illustrated by the course of federal finances over the past four years. Spending has ballooned at an 8.0 per cent annual rate since 2000, even putting aside military expenditure and items deemed "non-discretionary", including Medicare.
A good part of that rapid increase can be traced to a dramatic proliferation in "earmarks", parochial projects tacked on to appropriations bills by legislators eager to win points back home. Few of them -- like the famous bridges to nowhere in Alaska -- would survive a meritocratic review.
Imagine if, rather than designating $541m for such projects in Louisiana alone in the latest transportation bill -- including trails and bike paths -- Congress channelled the money into improving the levees around New Orleans. Apart from occasional grumbles, Mr Bush has proffered nothing, declining to veto a single appropriations bill or to use his power to rescind funds. What is more, only conservative think-tanks seem to care. Even leading Republicans recklessly insist that little spending can be eliminated.
Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts have brought federal revenue down to 16 per cent of gross domestic product, the lowest in 50 years, while huge bills loom for under-funded social welfare programmes.
Americans' ostrich-like attitude toward public finance mirrors their handling of their own money. In the US today, consumption rules -- whether in the form of a holiday at Disneyworld or a new electronic gadget. Meanwhile, the US savings rate bumps along at barely above zero, despite warnings such as the recent caution by Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, about the growing propensity of homeowners to refinance their mortgages to garner more spending money.
All of this, of course, reflects a new twist in American values.
In earlier times, Americans demanded less from their government -- less hurricane relief, no prescription drug plans and so on. Later, devastated by the Great Depression, Americans began to appreciate the potential of government while understanding the need to pay for it.
Only now, when they should surely know better, do Americans seem to want it both ways.
Bill Clinton, with no further elections to contest, has used various post-hurricane appearances to decry the anti-tax fervour, declaring that issues such as Katrina, Iraq, Afghanistan and tax-cutting don't mix. Americans need equal candour from their current lawmakers.
What to do? For a start, top income tax rates, as well as levies on dividend income and capital gains, should be returned to pre-Bush levels. That would yield more than $75bn a year while materially affecting only Americans making more than $200,000 per year, Americans who have enjoyed the bulk of their country's prosperity.
Slowing spending will require more courage. Mr Bush needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. Mr President, tell Congress that you will veto the next over-stuffed bill to reach your desk.
The hurricanes have shown that Americans retain a New Deal-like expectation of robust government services. That is all very well, but whatever happened to the equally old-fashioned notions of prudent spending and small deficits?
The writer is managing principal of Quadrangle Group, a New York-based private investment firm