D.C. CAL­LIOPE WHEEZES ALONG — TO NO GOOD END

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - OPINION - E. THOMAS McCLANA­HAN

Iread the other day that the Kansas City area won a big fed­eral grant — $50 mil­lion dol­lars in trans­porta­tion money for side­walks, bus lines and a few other items. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Ray LaHood came to town to an­nounce the deal. “You ought to be mighty proud here to­day,” he said in a pub­lic ap­pear­ance. I sat at my kitchen ta­ble looking at his pic­ture. Nor­mally, this sort of thing floats by like so much po­lit­i­cal el­e­va­tor mu­sic. Politi­cians, us­ing our money to buff their im­age. Peo­ple gripe about it and the ar­gu­ments have been made for decades, but the mu­sic plays on: Look what we’ve done for ya, folks. Here’s some cash. Aren’t we swell? But th­ese days, the mu­sic has be­come grat­ing. It was the side­walks that stuck in my mind. OK, I guess that would be a “shovel-ready” project. But when that phrase be­came cur­rent, I nat­u­rally as­sumed that what they had in mind were big high­way projects and the like that would im­prove mo­bil­ity and eco­nomic ef­fi­ciency, and build up the na­tion’s cap­i­tal stock. But side­walks? It’s a bit de­flat­ing. Then you think: The gov­ern­ment went into debt, to fix side­walks in Kansas City? And when did fix­ing our side­walks be­come a fed­eral re­spon­si­bil­ity? I looked at LaHood again, stand­ing there with two of our area con­gress­men, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Mis­souri and Rep. Den­nis Moore of Kansas. Those three are old hands. I’m sure they sense that the rules are chang­ing, and fast. The old way — the old mu­sic — isn’t likely to gen­er­ate the same de­gree of pos­i­tive po­lit­i­cal feed­back. The old tunes are play­ing in a rad­i­cally changed fi­nan­cial con­text. As long as I have fol­lowed pol­i­tics and the mar­kets, I can’t re­mem­ber a time when peo­ple spec­u­lated openly about a pos­si­ble debt de­fault by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Yet that’s what’s go­ing on. You think, good grief. This can’t hap­pen. If ev­ery­thing goes south, they’ll run the print­ing press but we won’t de­fault. Nev­er­the­less, the cost of in­sur­ing against a de­fault by the U.S. gov­ern­ment has been go­ing up. This is a sig­nal in the mar­kets, and not a good one. You can’t pick up a pa­per or boot up a com­puter without run­ning across signs that fis­cally, Wash­ing­ton has slipped its moor­ings. Un­der the lat­est Obama bud­get, the na­tional debt will dou­ble by 2020. Ser­vic­ing that debt will cost $800 bil­lion a year. Stim­u­lus money — it was sup­posed to be “tem­po­rary, tar­geted and timely,” re­mem­ber? — will be stream­ing out of the Trea­sury for nine more years. Most of that won’t go for “sho- vel-ready” projects. It’s go­ing to state gov­ern­ments and in­di­vid­u­als. A lot of gov­ern­ment work­ers will ben­e­fit, but the stim­u­lus pack­age of­fered lit­tle or noth­ing to boost eco­nomic growth. It didn’t do much to en­cour­age peo­ple run­ning busi­nesses to hire more work­ers, be­cause it didn’t change in­cen­tives. I’ve crit­i­cized the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fi­nan­cial profli­gacy be­fore, and I al­ways hear from peo­ple say­ing, Oh, go stuff it. What about Bush? Point taken. He was no fis­cal con­ser­va­tive. But un­til the econ­omy tanked in 2008, the deficit as a per­cent­age of GDP was steadily shrink­ing, un­til it was only 1.2 per­cent of GDP. Obama’s spending has taken the deficit from wor­ri­some to fright­en­ing. Nor is it a strictly fi­nan­cial mat­ter. In The Wall Street Jour­nal, Peggy Noo­nan won­dered whether, with our de­pen­dence on bor­row­ing, we’ll be able to af­ford a ro­bust de­fense. “If China owns enough of your pa­per, does it also own some of your for­eign pol­icy? Do we want to find out?” In the last few days, we’ve heard about the dan­ger of a debt de­fault by Greece, and the risk that Greece might trig­ger other de­faults by weaker mem­bers of the Euro­pean Union. We’re not so dif­fer­ent. Greece and the oth­ers are just a few more stops down the same road. We, too, have a mas­sive wel­fare state and a tax base too small to sup­port it. A turn­ing point has been reached, ev­i­dent in the over­whelm­ing voter re­jec­tion of Oba­maCare and the rise of the Tea Party. More vot­ers are fed up with politi­cians who ca­su­ally spray our money ev­ery­where and whose only ap­proach to na­tional prob­lems is more reg­u­la­tion, bal­loon­ing en­ti­tle­ments, higher taxes and more debt. It’s not clear what will take its place, but a lot of peo­ple are think­ing the same old mu­sic has played far too long. To reach E. Thomas McClana­han, call 816-234-4480 or send e-mail to mcclana­han@kc­star.com.

FRED BLOCHER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

Ac­com­pa­nied by Reps. Emanuel Cleaver and Den­nis Moore, Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Ray LaHood re­cently an­nounced a $50 mil­lion grant from the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

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