Christopher Caldwell

America’s overdue financial crisis

When Congress went into deadlock on the debt ceiling, it was the culmination of years of bitterness and complacency – and there is worse to come

When Congress went into deadlock on the debt ceiling, it was the culmination of years of bitterness and complacency – and there is worse to come

Washington DC

It’s obvious to me why the United States found itself so deep in debt that only an ugly compromise — rushed through Congress on Tuesday and Wednesday — could save it from failing to pay its bills for the first time in its history. The country is in the middle of a moral crisis. So often have Americans heard the tale of their forebears’ self-reliance and genius for political accommodation that they have grown complacent. If the crisis is new, the danger is of long standing. Describing how the rugged frontiersman degenerated into the flabby couch potato, the late historian Henry Steele Commager wrote a few years ago: ‘From Maine to Oregon he left forests in ruins; instead of cultivating, he mined the soil; he killed off bison and pigeon, polluted streams, wasted coal, oil and gas. His habits of waste he transmitted to a generation that could no longer afford them.’

But no one today seems to see that. I spent last weekend climbing mountains and crossing streams in the woods of northernmost New England, and can report with relief that Americans no longer despoil the wilderness with quite the zeal they used to. But the ‘habits of waste’ that Commager described can take many forms. Even deep in the woods the hikers we met on the trail, Republicans and Democrats alike, were convinced that only the treachery of the other party stood between them and their God-given right to receive $5 in government services for every $3 they pay in taxes.

The legislation meant to address this problem is, as one would expect in such an electorate, a patch and a compromise.

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