The implications of defaulting on the federal debt are certainly not negligible. Far from it. It really will matter to millions of Americans if social security or unemployment checks fail to go out on August 3.
Regardless, the one thing we do know is that continuing to prop up America’s current system of endless spending through ever-escalating debt is untenable. That’s the one part of the debt debate that the GOP gets right, even if they present it disingenuously. But that doesn’t make default the better option in the short run.
This is made even more clear when we connect the dots between energy and economy.
It’s about energy, not the economy
For roughly a century, cheap, readily available fossil fuels have been the key driver of the industrial economy worldwide. In the US, if we hadn’t had the early twentieth century oil boom, we wouldn’t have built the standard of living, public services and private wealth that we currently enjoy. After domestic peak oil hit in 1970 and we became a net energy importer, the US continued to feed our expansion with the light sweet crude of Saudi Arabia and other exporters.
It’s been a stupendous run of living the high life, tarnished only by a few wars of choice and a massive cannibalization of the planet and indigenous peoples at the same time. And of course, that empty feeling inside from buying more stuff and expecting it to make you happy.
But the entire run has been predicated on using the same driver of economy to fuel (fund) future promises to pay. Yes, it allowed for a too liberal growth in the size of government (by liberals and even more so by conservatives in the last decade), but that’s only part of the story.
That the Republicans now say they refuse to pay for their debts — it was George W. Bush, after all, who started two expensive wars while handing out tax cuts to the rich — while projecting blame onto struggling families for using programs like unemployment and food stamps, is also only part of the story.
The real story, in my view, is the spiritual back story, the karma of energy depletion.
To be sure, the GOP is waging a full-out plutocratic class war on the American people. Their maneuvers — refusing to make good on the debt they ordered and accrued while asking you, me, the sick, the disabled, teachers, firefighters and everyone else to take the hit — reeks of not only class warfare, but an attempt at a kind of coup d’état.
It’s classic Shock Doctrine — irresponsible elements among the rich create a crisis and then use it as an excuse to do unpopular things that they’ve wanted to do for a long time like cut their own taxes or trim spending on programs for the middle class. Through the debt crisis manufactured by Eric Cantor, House Speaker John Bohner, their Tea Party allies etal, the plutocrats are finally able to say “Let them eat cake.”
Moreover, the Tea Partiers are paving the way to argue that privatizing many government services, from social security to education, is our only path out. Not that it matters much, but polls show the American people don’t want the GOP version of tax favors for the rich with cuts for the rest of us.
Expect Congress to barrel forward anyway.
The larger concern is that there will never be enough cheap energy to pump the economy back up to a level where it could pay off all that debt. So, one way or another, we’re facing default sooner or later.
A new depression is almost certain, whether a grand and sweeping act of compromise happens on or before August 2 or not. And this is where we’ll pay the piper in the real world, if not in the deluded world of Washington. In other words, the bill will come due, and by limiting debt talks to pure numbers right now, rather than dealing more broadly with the myriad issues in energy, climate and ecological overshoot that compound fiscal and economic concerns, we simply postpone an inevitable reckoning that looks worse the longer we wait to tackle it.
Rafts of examples and statistics can be cited that point to our despoiled world, its oceans and waterways blighted by fish die offs, dead zones, trash heaps the size of whole nations and plastics emitting toxic chemicals and particulates. But this is left out of our talks, so focused are we on one very narrow band of economic pseudo-reality.
Oh beautiful for spacious skies
Our land and soil are reduced to drought-crippled wastelands, a tragic contrast to the “amber waves of grain” or “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plains,” which they once were. Now our continent is dotted from one side to the other with vehicles churning out exhaust, concealing the real cost of an oil-based economy by giving us all cancer, metabolic diseases and myriad lung problems. And for this we subsidize the highways and even, from time to time, ridiculous gas-chugging vehicles like SUVs, yet another “socialist” handout to business.
Our air is equally sullied by coal pollution, saturating us in mercury while natural gas wells amp up the methane problem. We prop up Big Coal in the budget (which is OK if you’re a GOP member of Congress) but the citizen can suck it up, and pay for your asthma medicine yourself, you lazy underachiever. To help you would would cost too much right now. And anyway, that would be the wrong kind of socialism, the kind that fails to export any cash–a mafia-like cut–to Big Business.
Yet in its zeal for deregulating banking and other industries prone to chicanery and then bailing them out when their own greed gets them in trouble, the GOP remains content to privatize the profits and socialize the losses. The “cake” that we the people get to eat is the privilege of paying for it all.
All of these, and many more examples hide the real debts behind the debt, the meta-narrative that our society, and even more so both our government and our conservative (profit-driven) media refuse to acknowledge. In leadership there is no coherent response, approach, plan or even desire to deal with our many problems, or to nurture and advance American society and culture with an aim to truly rectify the many and broader debts we have incurred in enjoying the life, at least on the surface, that we’ve come to expect.
But on debt, one day the bill eventually does come due. And then, in street terms, “Karma is a bitch!”
Sickness unto death
Physicians tell us that we can’t cure an illness until we understand its cause. Author Carolyn Baker writes that the death of the industrial economy is the precursor to a rebirth into something new. So, we shouldn’t fight it. We should embrace it in all its tragic and destructive totality.
America’s disease today is the ecological and energy debt we’ve accrued as we’ve plundered Mother Earth to fuel our unrestrained desires and to consume without regard to consequences.
Embracing that tragic reality may allow for a healing perspective, and foster spiritual resilience in the face of loss and debilitating decline, but it doesn’t erase the consequences of our actions. It’s like your confessor reminds you in Christianity, that indeed you are forgiven, but that doesn’t mean your alcoholism wont result in a terminal condition, nor that your crime will be pardoned and your jail time erased.
In part, government debt has aided the acceleration of our collective spiritual debt as it subsidized industrial agriculture, dirty energy and oppressive and wasteful wars of choice.
We might all breathe a sigh of relief when the reality TV series that is Washington’s daily debt show is resolved in an 11th hour “solution” that reflects “sober compromise” and where all parties were “at the table.”
But in the end we’ll still bear the enormous and growing shadow of that real debt, the denial and avoidance and projection and petty politicking and failure of leadership that will dog us and haunt us in the background.
If the people will lead, the leaders will follow
Peak oil is here and it’s here to stay. From now on, we won’t have the driver of cheap energy to re-start economic growth and get us out of the mire of depression. We’ll eventually have to deal with our energy-economy when there’s no longer time for votes and when votes don’t even matter much.
Climate change is also here to stay, no matter how much air time we give to the most openly disjointed among us. We’ll eventually have so many compound problems in drought, flooding, livestock and produce loss, eco-refugees and resource shortages that centralized attempts to “solve the problems” will be self-evidently ridiculous, if we have enough time and energy to stop and witness such staged and wooden machinations.
Then, during that “long night of the soul,” which could last for a century, our kids will finally get to pay those debts we’ve long said shouldn’t be on their shoulders.
Let’s at least remember that we were the ones who boldly decided to place them right there. And that these were the schmucks we voted into office to do it on our behalf.
We’re all culpable. That’s why a little less silence and idleness on the part of the masses would go a long way right now. It won’t eradicate our shared spiritual debt in the long run. But fighting back against the plutocratic direction of the country might at least begin to recalibrate our national values and assert new, more holistic and sustainable national priorities.
It’s our democracy, if we’ll have it.
— Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice