The May 23, 2011 issue of Time magazine presented data on the national debt of 10 major economies. The presentation by Josh Sanburn includes an assessment of the risk of each country defaulting on its national debt, based on Moody’s credit ratings, which seem to be based first on the portion of debt held outside the country and second on the size of the debt compared to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Japan and the United States are the only two of the ten countries not in Europe.
The level of debt combined with the significant foreign ownership, except in Japan, of that debt may indicate a tendency for these Westernized economies and cultures to live beyond our means. As individual nations, we have increasingly chosen to spend more than we earn or produce. At some point, this becomes unsustainable. When the United States may reach that point has been a subject of debate in recent weeks as the U.S. Congress considered, and has now chosen, to raise the debt ceiling.
Reports that the debate has simply been political grandstanding are disturbing. The issue is serious and significant. Resolution is feasible.
The United States and other nations can reduce current spending levels, a decision which is politically challenging in an era of near-perpetual campaigning for national and local elected office. The alternative most discussed is raising taxes to bring budgets more in balance, another politically dicey proposition. A third alternative, which receives little attention, is to raise GDP. The lack of attention may result from the difficulty in achieving this.
Raising GDP requires increased production, which requires increased demand and increased disposable income at a macro level, which, on average, requires the same at the personal level. The months, now years, since the fanfare-accompanied stimulus packages in many of these same economies suggests that legislators and their staffs know how to write legislation but know very little about job creation. They know how to create public-private work programs and how to buoy failing companies until those companies regain sustainability, but seem to know little about stimulating innovation, creation of sustainable jobs, and growing GDP.
Elected representatives in the United States and elsewhere seemingly need a wakeup call in the form of a dose of reality. Leadership does not require legislation or legislative expertise, but effective legislation seems to require leadership. Regardless of ideology, philosophy, or party affiliation, if the current course is unsustainable, then somebody needs to change something. Academically and pragmatically, leaders are agents of change; maintaing the status quo requires no leadership. In representative forms of government, citizens elect other citizens to lead the community or nation in the right direction. All elected representatives assume the role of change agent. The direction and scope of the change is the significant variable.
If we, whoever we may be, do not like our current direction or it’s consequences, we need leadership. We do not need rhetoric or politics or slogans or grandstanding. We need change, feasible, sustainable change. We need leaders who define and collaborate and negotiate a new direction that most of us can accept, if not embrace. Then, those of us who elected people to positions of leadership need to follow, to let our leaders lead, and to hold them accountable to lead as we elected them to do.