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By Gideon Rachman
In Winnie-the-Pooh, there is a significant moment when the bear is asked whether he wants honey or condensed milk with his bread. He replies “both”. You can get away with this sort of thing if you are a much loved character in children’s literature. But it is more problematic when great nations start behaving in a childish fashion. When Americans are asked what they want – lower taxes, more lavish social spending or the world’s best-funded military machine – their collective answer tends to be “all of the above”.
The result is that the US is piling up debt. A budget deficit of about 12 per cent of gross domestic product is understandable as a short-term reaction to a huge financial crisis. What should worry Americans is that, with entitlement spending set to surge, there is no credible plan to bring the budget deficit under control over the medium term.
The US has formidable strengths that will allow its government to be profligate for far longer than other nations could get away with. But if the US keeps running huge deficits, sooner or later the country will start flirting with bankruptcy. Oddly, it might be best if the crisis came sooner rather than later. For a surprising number of countries, running out of money has been the prelude to national renewal.
The two biggest and most beneficial geopolitical stories of the past 30 years – the spread of democracy and of globalisation – were driven by a succession of states finding their coffers empty.