“The greatest moral challenge of our day”?

I promise this is the last post on David Brooks — at least until the next one. Overall, I think his point in today’s column is worthwhile and pretty much correct. He argues that ideologues on the left and the right fundamentally misunderstand President Obama, and calls the president “still the most realistic and reasonable major player in Washington” and a pragmatic progressive. He concludes:

In a sensible country, people would see Obama as a president trying to define a modern brand of moderate progressivism. In a sensible country, Obama would be able to clearly define this project without fear of offending the people he needs to get legislation passed. But we don’t live in that country. We live in a country in which many people live in information cocoons in which they only talk to members of their own party and read blogs of their own sect. They come away with perceptions fundamentally at odds with reality, fundamentally misunderstanding the man in the Oval Office.

I think Brooks right. But in the course of being right on his overall point, he makes an error that is just plain weird. He says that “the $9.7 trillion in new debt being created this decade” is “the greatest moral challenge of our day.” Huh?

OK, if you own a lot of capital and are invested in T-bills, then I think there are rational reasons for you to be very, very worried about the national debt. It may even be your number one policy issue. No problem there. And if you’re young (like me), then you have every reason to be angry at how the system is set up such that we’ll be left holding the bag for the last 30 years of fiscal hypocrisy. I know I am. That means that dealing with the future debt crisis is high on my list of priorities.

But “greatest moral issue of the day”? Puh-leaze. Economic development, education, scientific progress, health, justice, security, happiness, freedom — aren’t these more likely candidates for “greatest moral issue of the day”? Sure, our unsustainable fiscal outlook makes addressing each of these things harder, but the only reason to care about the debt is because you care about the effects of the debt on other, real policy concerns. Otherwise, you’re just looking out for the parochial interests of bondholders as a defining “moral interest”. I have no problem with looking out for the parochial interest of bondholders, by the way. I just don’t pretend it’s a moral issue.

People need to stop turning “things I care about” into “great moral issues”.

Update: It seems to me that people are tempted to show their tough-nosed pragmatism and centrist tendencies by discussing the overriding importance of the deficit and the debt. I guess it makes other people think, “Wow, this person sure does think a lot about numbers and esoteric topics. I bet s/he is really smart, unlike those bleeding hearts who worry about things like peace, development, and happiness.” It’s a sort of fad contrarianism designed to signal intelligence, independence, and realism. But to me it seems utterly devoid of moral motivation and reads more like a political ploy than a declaration of principles. I’ll say it again: the only good reason to care about the debt is the devastating impact it is likely to have in the future on other things that matter.

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1 Response to ““The greatest moral challenge of our day”?”



  1. 1 Aliens: outsourced « Joint Stock Company Trackback on March 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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