Will We Be Able To Grow Out Of Our Current Problems

James Pethokoukis recently ran a post about the prospects for Obama’s reelection. He excerpted a rather poignant piece from an article by John Ellis. In the article, which I recommend you read in its entirety, Ellis goes through the conventional logic of why Obama will most likely win another term and then suggests an alternative that throws previous notions about the ebb and flow of American politics to the wind:

The question on the table is: are these times normal? Or is something much more profound and much more unsettling going on? If you believe that the new normal is not normal at all, as I do, then “normal” narratives no longer apply.

What might be an alternative story line? One answer would be: increased volatility. A darker answer might be: political instability and unrest.

As a nation, we are struggling with overwhelming debt at every level of governance and across a vast swath of the electorate. There are at least (at the very least) 15 states and countless municipalities that are functionally bankrupt. The states that are bankrupt, by any real accounting, include New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Illinois, California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Wisconsin, Louisiana, Missouri, Oregon, Washington and Michigan. They can’t (literally can not) meet their pension obligations. They won’t be able to pay for their ever-rising health care costs. Education costs are eating up too much money (although this will abate somewhat as the echo boom generation matriculates) and virtually every state (andmunicipality) has huge bond obligations, the proceeds from which papered over previous shortfalls. Oh, and one other thing, the economies in all of those states are stagnant, at best.

Once the last infusions of stimulus money run dry, what remains is a vast desert of debt. The idea that an over-leveraged electorate can be called upon to make up the shortfall is a non-starter. They can’t pay down their own debt and municipal debt and state debt and federal debt. The math simply doesn’t work. They end up with no take home pay.

This is the real avalanche that is about to hit American democracy. The avalanche in two weeks results in Nancy Pelosi no longer being the Speaker of the House. The avalanche of debt that hits beginning in 2011 andkeeps on coming will shake our political system to its foundation. That’s the avalanche that matters.

President Obama can either get ahead of this avalanche by proposing a vast restructuring of government debt and obligations while aggressively promoting a venture-based economic growth agenda or he can be consumed by the rubble. The same holds true for the next Republican presidential nominee. He or she needs to be ahead of the avalanche to survive its inevitable onslaught.

It is unlikely that either President Obama or the future GOP nominee will even address the avalanche. So the narrative will write itself. It will make the autumn of 2008 look like a day at the beach.

Pethokoukis offers this thought at the end of his post”

Me: Austerity won’t sell. Growth and prosperity will. Whoever gaffs that, wins.

I’m assuming that he thinks growth and prosperity are the only winning political strategies and that they are the only way out of the financial disaster that Ellis describes. I would tend to concur. Cut spending we must but it won’t get the job done.

All of which is easy to assert but how likely is it that we can grow our way out our problems. A chart that Dave Schuler recently published doesn’t offer a lot of hope.

Schuler points out the obvious, that over the past 20 years or so growth has been much more moderate than it was for the preceding 40 years. If you discount the effects of the two bubbles during the past two decades, the growth picture is even dimmer. Essentially, recent history would seem to indicate that while growth might be the panacea for our troubles, it’s unlikely that we will experience levels sufficiently high that they levitate us from our hole.

Schuler has some thoughts on what might goose growth — increased immigration and more bubbles — but tends to think that neither is likely to occur. On immigration I think he’s right, the political winds are howling in the other direction. As for bubbles, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more as government does its level best to put off the day of accounting.

I’ll take a flyer in the face of contrary evidence and suggest that the American spirit might yet pull this one out. Given some real leadership, the pain of spending cuts can be spread around enough to not decimate any one group completely and possibly come to be viewed as a worthwhile sacrifice on behalf of the country. If the political class can force itself to relinquish the power it has accumulated over the past 20 years or so it’s quite possible that entrepreneurship would flourish. Free people who have good ideas and the energy to translate them into job creating new enterprises from the maze of regulation and taxation that now stands in their way and you won’t find yourself constrained to that 2% GDP growth that’s become the norm.

That’s a lot of givens and ifs to get by. If we don’t then you can forget about getting out of the hole Ellis describes.

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