Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy Stone
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

The Fourth of July long has been one of my very favorite holidays. I’m an American, after all, and I love eating hamburgers, drinking beer and setting off explosions.

The Fourth of July that has just passed was no exception (although, this being Aspen, it was steak and margaritas rather than hamburgers and beer, and someone else set off the explosions – but still, the general spirit was on the mark).

But what I really like about the Fourth is that it is, at heart, a supremely optimistic holiday. It celebrates the wild optimism that led our Founding Fathers to declare their independence and launch a war against the most powerful nation on the planet.

That’s what it took to found this nation, that’s what it took to make America great.

But this year, my enthusiasm was dampened a bit.

These days, optimism does not abound.

Just last week, I was listening to one of the radio talk show rabble-rousers and a caller declared – almost shrieking – “We’re in trouble! Deep trouble! The Constitution is hanging by a thread!”

The Constitution is hanging by a thread.

So, OK, that guy is not on my team, but I could not figure out what the heck he was talking about.

I mean, of course you can find some thin constitutional ice these days: surveillance of citizens in violation of the Bill of Rights, some pretty dicey legal arguments for our involvement in the Libyan revolution. Others, I’m sure.

But “hanging by a thread”?

That’s pretty extreme. Pretty loony. Pretty pessimistic.

I was talking with a conservative friend a few weeks back – someone I like a lot and disagree with completely – and his pessimism was out of control. He was going on and on about how “we’re broke.” In fact, he said, “We’re the brokest country in this history of the planet.”

I tried to point out that we are, in fact, the richest country in the history of the world, but he scoffed and said that was before that “socialist president” had gotten hold of us.

I figured that was a pretty good time to change the topic of conversation. (And – damn the NFL and its labor disputes – I couldn’t use the always effective, “How about them Broncos?” Although, now that I think of it, these days that’s rarely a good topic if you’re looking to boost someone’s optimism.)

Clearly, pessimism is loose in the land.

And not by accident.

Pessimism is the current Republican strategy.

They want to get everyone depressed, blame it all on the president and then run riot, cutting taxes, slashing the budget (by eliminating anything that actually helps people) and sweeping back into the White House in 2012.

I don’t know if, in the long run, they’ll get their way. But for right now it seems to be working.

I, for one, am certainly depressed.

We are facing some serious economic problems – no, we’re not “the brokest country in history,” but we do need to get the economy back on track and those same Republicans seem determined to do the most damage they possibly can.

Right now, we are tangled up in a crisis over raising the national debt ceiling.

And it is entirely artificial, a manufactured crisis.

There is no reason whatsoever for the debt ceiling to be called a “crisis.”

The Republicans have chosen to make it a crisis by threatening to force the country into default – at the risk of doing inconceivable damage to the national and world economy.

The national debt is a serious issue, granted.

No doubt, we need to have some serious debate, and we need to make some hard choices about the government and the budget and how we spend our nation’s resources.

But the Republicans are refusing to actually have that serious discussion.

Instead, they are “negotiating” by means of violent threats, using the debt ceiling as leverage.

There is no connection between the deficit, the debt, and the debt ceiling. Yes, I know, they all use the same words “debt” and “deficit” – but there’s really no connection.

Not-so-simple fact: Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with running up more debt.

We need to raise the debt ceiling to continue making payments on the debt we have already incurred.

And by the way, the majority of that debt was incurred before Barack Obama became president of these United States. In 2001, when George W. Bush took over as president, the national debt was about $5.7 trillion. In 2009, when Obama moved into the White House, the debt was already up to $11.9 trillion. That’s more than double: We are now moving past $14 trillion.

Yes, those numbers are big, and they’re frightening.

But that money has already been spent.

And paying off that debt is what we’re arguing over when we talk about the debt ceiling. It’s just like making your credit card payments: You ran up the bills, you make the payments.

But the Republicans say that unless they get their way, they’re willing to force the country to default on the payments – the payments on the debt that they ran up (with, to be sure, more than enough Democratic help) when they cut taxes and launched two wars under President George W. Bush.

And what they are demanding is savage spending cuts and absolutely no tax increases whatsoever – especially not the very wealthy.

Which actually, oddly enough, brings me back to the Fourth of July in Aspen.

I was talking to a friend during a Fourth of July dinner, and he mentioned watching a handful of World War II vets marching at the front of the parade.

He said it left him sad and angry to think that we might be forced to slash veterans’ benefits in order to preserve a tax loophole that gives a break to the owners of private jets.

That is the Republican position.

So much for this great optimistic nation of ours.

Is this really the best we can do?