Pending catastrophe is not an easy notion to entertain, much less sustain. Americans moreover have a low tolerance for doom and gloom. We are the nation of optimism, after all. We elect leaders who promise hope and change. We are the shining city on a hill.
But what happens when the lights go out?
We're America. The most powerful nation on Earth. The land of plenty and opportunity. The place all others want to live. We are the dream.
But. But. What if . . . they do?
As they say, denial ain't just a river in Egypt. Count me among those who wish not to see what is horrifyingly apparent. Having recently arrived at the conclusion that the worst-case scenarios we've been hearing about for months (and even years to those more alert) might be true, I feel my optimism flagging.
Oh, but it's not really that bad, we tell ourselves. We've hit hard times before. We'll manage. But what if the worst really is yet to come?
Alas, the facts do not give optimists much to work with. If we do not get our financial house in order, few scary scenarios recently described by doomsayers will be reviewed as hyperbolic.
For prompts to assume the fetal curl, one need read no further than the Dec. 3 issue of Foreign Affairs, where Roger Altman, former U.S. deputy treasury secretary, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, describe a nearly apocalyptic future - just around the bend - if we do not act yesterday.
OK, today may do, but not so much tomorrow.
Begin here: Within 10 years, the federal debt could reach 90 percent of GDP. No, wait, even that is "too optimistic" given low rates of economic growth, they say. The latest report from the International Monetary Fund projects that the federal debt could equal GDP by 2015.
The consequences of this slide are profound, not just at home but abroad as our power is eclipsed by developing nations. This is a difficult thought to grasp, not least because it happened so suddenly in historical terms. As Altman and Haass point out, the national debt was only about 35 percent of GDP just 12 years ago.
Furthermore, the debt had been shrinking to the point that some thought it might even be paid off. With the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts now animating the professional bickerers in Washington, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the prescription-drug benefit to Medicare, we shifted our fiscal policy so significantly that we are faced with an era of austerity.