The mice in council, illustration by Milo Winter
There's an old fable, traditionally attributed to Aesop, though he probably never told it. It goes something like this:
Once upon a time all the Mice met together in Council, and discussed the best means of securing themselves against the attacks of the cat. After several suggestions had been debated, a Mouse of some standing and experience got up and said, "I think I have hit upon a plan which will ensure our safety in the future, provided you approve and carry it out. It is that we should fasten a bell round the neck of our enemy the cat, which will by its tinkling warn us of her approach."
This proposal was warmly applauded, and it had been already decided to adopt it, when an old Mouse got upon his feet and said, "I agree with you all that the plan before us is an admirable one: but may I ask who is going to bell the cat?"
That story came back to me yesterday afternoon, as I was driving back to Asheville after a lovely weekend far from civilization. NPR had a good segment on the country's debt ceiling problems. It's likely the ceiling will be raised after some sort of compromise (how bad a one remains to be seen), but the underlying problems have built up for some time.
There's plenty of blame to go around, mind, and narrow interests have way too much leverage over the political system.
But I think the narrative often pushed, of an innocent and just "people" held hostage to nefarious cliques, is lacking something, and the above segment illustrates why. Notice that the current unsustainable setup — massive spending on the military, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, along with an utter unwillingness to raise taxes — is extremely popular. The unpopular programs that people want to cut actually make up a minuscule part of spending.
Yes, most Americans, like most humans, deserve way better than what they receive. Conversely, I don't buy the bullshit narrative that the average voter bears equal responsibility for the worst actions of those in power. But the current set-up got that way in part because millions upon millions of people voted for its advocates. Repeatedly.
After all, a better-equipped military sounds good, right? And grandma really does deserve her check (plus, her demographic votes in massive numbers).
When it comes time to pay for all that, no one wants to foot the bill, or even part of the bill. Raising taxes isn't popular because few people say "I want more money to go to the government" especially when you don't particularly like the one you have.
Politicians like to be popular; it's a job requirement. Aforementioned interests prod too (what else would you expect them to do?) to protect their own pet causes.
All of which makes the current situation understandable — as most disasters are. It also points to the thornier side of the problems it highlights, because when you factor in the popular demands that led to the current fiasco, it's not just a problem of replacing an elite or throwing out some nefariously influential power-brokers.
This isn't limited to governmental finances, of course. All those new, smart devices guzzle electricity, fueling a thirst for coal (or oil, or nuclear) power. People waiting for their shiny martial arts implants won't bother to exercise. Voting for decades of "tough on crime" politicians has spurred a massive prison population. There is always a price, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.
Obviously, breaks in the wilderness make me quite ranty.
But there's something here. If we want to avoid this kind of clusterfuck in the future, it might be time to start asking not just about the benefits of today's plans for tomorrow, but about their consequences, and if we're fully prepared to accept them. Someone always has to bell the damn cat.