During the summer of 1998, the American people were transfixed by the home run competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The feats of strength, the friendly rivalry, and the long ball culminated in a gripping narrative where every at-bat by the duo was must-see TV. In the moment, the athletes felt immortal. The moment was an unimpeachable high point in sports’ history.
Instead of being legendary, the legacy of this summer sits somewhere between awkwardness and disgrace. The soaring home run totals were met by an asterisk. Sosa, McGwire and a whole host of other Major Leaguers turned out to be on steroids. And as much as Americans love record-breaking long balls, they abhor corner-cutters and cheaters. Instead of a 20-year anniversary tour of the home run bonanza, McGwire and Sosa’s names are hardly uttered. Who would have thought that in the summer of 98’?
While not nearly as popular of a cast, there is a striking resemblance between the summer of the long ball and this decade of national politics. Vying to win the fight, the GOP and DNC are rolling out proposals that are poll-tested and battle-ready. Tax cuts! Medicare for All! Strengthen the military! Free college!!
Just like the stars of the 98’ slugfest, Congress is juicing. The drug of choice – excessive borrowing.
Congress is staring down a $1 trillion deficit and every policy plan and platform speech for this year’s midterm election is either spend more or tax less. And it’s not just speeches on the campaign trail. Since the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2011, nearly every major fiscal measure that has passed Congress has been paid for with added-debt. The fiscal cliff agreement, three budget cap increases, and the GOP tax cuts were all put on the taxpayer’s tab.
The reason? Because responsible fiscal policy is not only hard to implement, but it’s even harder to sell. Any attempt at responsible governance is seized upon by the political opponent – slandered as granny-haters or tax-hiking hippies. Winning the next election is the singular driving force of the leaders of our national parties – so hard-to-sell proposals get left on the cutting room floor.
When your arms are the size of tree trunks, simply making contact with the ball will send it out of the park. And when you ignore fiscal responsibility, it’s really easy to pass a spending agenda that pleases everyone. Just like the juiced muscle will turn to flab, accumulating debt will put severe impediments on our economic future.
Younger generation’s taxes will go more and more towards paying interest on past debts, our national savings rate is reduced, and one day we may no longer be able to pay off the debt – spurring a fiscal crisis via bankruptcy or monetization of the debt through inflation.
These consequences likely won’t happen until the leaders responsible for them are retired. But the legacy of the leaders who perpetrated this mass fiscal neglect will be cratered once the damage is done.
For another cycle at least, politicians will tout their budget-busting accomplishments and propose new ways to spend more and tax less – trillion dollar deficits be damned. For the moment, it actually might work. But our nation’s leaders should talk to Sosa and McGwire. Because popularity is fleeting. Victory can be redefined with the context of history. And a legacy built on cutting corners is not a lasting one.