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03.01.09

The Audacity of Nope

One feels almost unpatriotic, entertaining negative thoughts about Obama’s grand plan. But it is far from clear that spending oceanic sums of money is the right corrective.

That was, as Tom Lehrer would say, the week that was. President Barack Obama gave his first State of the Union speech. Governor Bobby Jindal gave his first and possibly last Republican response. The president presented a $3.6 trillion budget, and announced that we are getting out of Iraq but not really. And Rush Limbaugh gave—as he put it, fun intended—his first nationally televised address to the nation.

Just remember the apothegm that a government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.

Hold on—there’s a typo in that paragraph. “$3.6 trillion budget” can’t be right.The entire national debt is—what—about $11 trillion? He can’t actually be proposing to spend nearly one-third of that in one year, surely. Let me check. Hmm. He did. The Wall Street Journal notes that federal outlays in fiscal 2009 will rise to almost 30 percent of the gross national product. In language that even an innumerate English major such as myself can understand: The US government is now spending annually about one-third of what the entire US economy produces. As George Will would say, “Well.”

Now let me say: Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I want President Obama to succeed. I honestly do. We are all in this leaky boat together—did I say “leaky”? I meant “sieve-like”—and it would be counterproductive, if not downright suicidal, to want it to go down just to prove a conservative critique of Keynesian economics.

But let’s all be honest about this: No one knows how all this is going to turn out in the end. Do you, really? If we learned one thing during the runup to this rancid enchilada, it is that most of the smartest people in the room were wrong, and the other ones were crooked.

Even today, smart people are still holding spittle-flying debates about what really ended the Great Depression. ( That’s reassuring, isn’t it?) Personally, I’m in the camp that maintains it was Pearl Harbor, not FDR’s policies, that actually brought it to an end. Which, I suppose, leaves me to wonder if the best we can hope for is another sneak attack by Japan. Bring it on, as our former president would say. Let’s just pray Japan hasn’t quietly produced The Bomb since 1945. All those centrifuges they said they needed for “flat-screen plasma TVs”? Uh oh….

I’m all for audacity and all for hope. “ L’audace, l’audace—toujours l’audace!” is an inspiring motto. It worked for Patton. Whatever you think of this leviathan budget, President Obama cannot be accused of being a trimmer, or reticent. And with the New York Times running heart-breaking front-page stories about out-of-work executives now working as $11-an-hour janitors, I’m all for hope, too. Governor Jindal and El Rushbo may not be happy campers, but even Senator John McCain has been sounding positive notes about President Obama’s leadership—while at the same time focusing the nation’s attention on the president’s (ahem) proposed new $11 billion fleet of helicopters. It would be presidential for him to say, as he almost has, that he’ll keep the old model for a few more years.

The strange thing is that one feels almost unpatriotic, entertaining negative thoughts about Mr. Obama’s grand plan, as if one were indulging in—call it—the audacity of nope. It is on the one hand clear that something must be done about our economic woes. But that is very different from saying that spending these vast, oceanic sums of money is the right corrective to a decade of fiscal incontinence.

One thing is certain, however: Government is getting bigger and will stay bigger. Just remember the apothegm that a government that is big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take it all away.And remember what de Tocqueville told us about a bureaucracy that grows so profuse that not even the most original mind can penetrate it.

If this is what the American people want, so be it, but they ought to have no illusions about the perils of this approach. Mr. Obama is proposing among everything else $1 trillion in new entitlements, and entitlement programs never go away, or in the oddly poetic bureaucratic jargon, “sunset.” He is proposing $1.4 trillion in new taxes, an appetite for which was largely was whetted by the shameful excesses of American CEO corporate culture. And finally, he has proposed $5 trillion in new debt, one-half the total accumulated national debt in all US history. All in one fell swoop.

He tells us that all this is going to work because the economy is going to be growing by 3.2 percent a year from now. Do you believe that? Would you take out a loan based on that? And in the three years following, he predicts that our economy will grow by 4 percent a year.

This is nothing if not audacious hope. If he’s right, then looking back, March 2009 will be the dawn of the Age of Stimulation, or whatever elegant phrase Niall Ferguson comes up with. If he turns out to be wrong, then it will look very different, the entrance ramp to the Road to Serfdom, perhaps, and he will reap the whirlwind that follows, along with the rest of us.

Christopher Buckley’s books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the founder and editor-in-chief of Forbes FYI.