Jacob Heilbrunn

Indebted

Ross Douthat's column opposite Paul Krugman's in the New York Times today provides a nice example of contrasting viewpoints, to put it mildly, when it comes to the American economy and the national debt. Krugman lambastes President Obama for being a namby-pamby when it comes to facing down the GOP. "Who is this bland, timid guy who doesn't seem to stand for anything in particular?" he asked. It's a question that many Democrats are pondering, or have pondered, about Obama. The inspirational figure they saw seems to have disappeared and been replaced by someone who seeks to play the transcendental leader rather than a feisty fighter for traditional liberal values.

Meanwhile, Douthat argues that House Republican Paul Ryan's proposed budget does a good job of striking "a plausible balance between the dual imperatives of growth and fiscal discipline." But he notes that simply trying to jettison Obama's health care plan without having some kind of substitute won't pass muster. And he notes that the Ryan plans "central economic premise—that lowering marginal tax rates guarantees widely shared prosperity—was tested and found wanting during the Bush era." What Douthat is aiming for is a conservatism that isn't simply a Grinchy version of Herbert Hoover-style economics, but one that also offers opportunity for Americans to ascend the economic ladder rather than be permanently stuck on the lower rungs—or unable to get on at all.

One thing that neither he nor Krugman mentions, however, is the bloated state of the military budget. There can be no doubting that Medicare and Medicaid are due for reform. But so is the military. The budget for 2011 is set to exceed $700 billion. According to Time, America spends about 35% of the total military outlays on the planet. These sums are astronomical. They pose a dire threat to the health of the economy. Not only are these exorbitant outlays, but they also encourage other democratic countries to allow America to shoulder burdens they should be assuming—the well-known free-rider syndrome.

Germany's budget deficit, for example, will be about 2.5% this year and is slated to fall to 0.5% by 2014. This means that, barring a total collapse of the European Union, the Euro will be a very healthy and strong currency. Meanwhile, the value of the dollar may decrease further. American leaders will increasingly face the temptation to inflate their way out of the deficit, thereby debauching the dollar. Once inflation begins expectations of further price hikes set in. It's very difficult to curb it.

There are no signs that inflation is about to begin roaring. But it could take off in the next few years. When Obama releases his budget plan this week, it will be a further move in the high-stakes dickering that is currently taking place in Washington over the scale of the national debt. It's about time that Obama gave an indication of what he does, or does not, intend to try and accomplish. The solution is in plain sight: curbs on entitlements, higher taxes on the truly wealthy, and reducing military spending. If Obama wants to go down as a great president, he could do worse than to tackle the debt problem and reach a compromise with the GOP.