The Debt Dilemma

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson’s draft plan to reduce the $13 trillion national debt, released on Wednesday, was unequivocal that change was going to be difficult and call for deep sacrifices. We have here what Bernard Williams calls a dilemma.  There is no single formula that is going to get us out of this mess or alleviate us of any sense of regret or loss. Raising taxes isn’t enough nor is cutting programs. Getting the nation’s budget on track will call for some of both.  Many liberals are grumbling about touching social security. The tea partiers disparage raising taxes as “compromise” rather than principle. Each side holds something sacred.  The principle they all fail to grasp is that it is wrong to pass this debt on to our children. In dogmatic politics, on any side, the claim is usually that one’s own side is right and the other is the devil. The debt is just not like that.

I am not saying that the Bowles-Simpson plan is exactly right.  For example, I have concerns about lowering tax rates in exchange for getting rid of loop holes and tax deductions.  But I appreciate that they put something on the table that recognizes that we have a balance of things to consider and weigh:  fixing the pending social security crisis without jeopardizing the welfare of the least well off seniors, increasing tax revenue without hampering the economic recovery, downsizing the defense budget without harming national security.  These are all real dilemmas.  They do not admit of easy solutions.  They call for deliberation and working through, in a psychoanalytic sense, what we need to do, rather than remain in denial.  If we could all, like Bowles and Erskine, acknowledge this then perhaps we could get to the truly hard work of figuring out what to do.

The real problem all along is that we have been negotiating budgets that are palatable to the living without enough thought for those to come.

Edit: Check out Our Fiscal Future for more info — sponsored in party by Public Agenda (one of my favorite orgs).

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.


  1. The conservatives have been railing against the deficit for the past two years because we’re taxed enough already and the debt is being passed on to our children and grandchildren. That very premise is what gave rise to the Tea Party. Stop spending and reduce the size of government is what’s going to set us on a better path. There’s a host of things that can accomplish that. Cutting taxes alone will increase revenue.

  2. Robin’s reply exemplifies the kind of thinking that denies that there might be a real dilemma here. She’s got a formula: “cut taxes = raise revenue = fix the debt.”

    If there was such a magic bullet, it would have worked already. There’s no magic bullet, Robin, just like there’s no Santa Claus. That the debt is a dilemma means that we might all have to give up something that we hold dear.

    What are you willing to give up?

  3. I just couldn’t leave your site before telling you that I truly enjoyed the useful info you offering to your visitors… Will be back soon to check up on newborn posts

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: