Beg, borrow, and steal

Published: Sunday, January 11, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 10, 2009 at 12:23 a.m.

I once heard Bill Clinton tell a story that I've always thought perfectly encapsulated the political and social ethos of our generation.

It was before he became president. Clinton came to speak at a National Conference of Editorial Writers convention.

And he told us about the first time he ran for re-election as governor of Arkansas.

As I recall it, the story went something like this:

Things were looking pretty good for the incumbent. But just to be sure, Clinton sent a seasoned political adviser out to travel around the state and sort of take the pulse of the electorate.

Days went by, the election was approaching, and no word from the pulse-taker.

Finally, the call came in.

"How's it looking out there," an anxious Clinton asked.

"Not too good, governor," the advisor said. "In fact, it looks like you're going to lose."

"How can that be?" Clinton demanded.

"Well, it's your highway taxes, governor. The voters are hopping mad."

"But we did polls," Clinton said. "The people told us they wanted better highways, and they said they were willing to pay for them."

Well, governor, they were only kidding."

I think about that story every time I get a news release and they come in regular as clockwork about the latest survey showing the Americans want better (fill in your own blank) and are willing to pay for it.

"Only kidding," I invariably chuckle to myself.

The latest such survey arrived just this week from an organization that calls itself "Building America's Future."

Its hot-off-the-presses results indicates that:

"A near unanimous 94 percent of Americans are concerned about our nation's infrastructure."


"81 percent of Americans are prepared to pay 1 percent more in taxes to rebuild America."

A measly 1 percent tax hike to rebuild America.

What a bargain.

What a bunch of kidders we are.

Listen, we've just spent the last 8 years fighting two wars, cutting our taxes, increasing our entitlements and generally indulging in the biggest shopping binge in history.

On borrowed money, of course.

Heck, I don't even have grandchildren yet. But they'll pay it back, I'm sure.

And now, with the economy threatening to come down around our ears, we're going to do more of the same.

Trillion dollar deficits "for years to come" as President-elect Barack Obama put it this week.

And nobody in Washington is kidding around about taxes.

About paying our own way for a change.

Because they know we Americans are not in a joking mood.

Well, this is no joke either.

The New York Times reported this week that China, the world's biggest consumer of American debt, is cutting back on its consumption.

"All the key drivers of China's Treasury purchases are disappearing," Ben Simpfendorfer, economist in the Hong Kong branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland, told the Times. "There's a waning appetite for dollars and a waning appetite for Treasuries "

Not to worry. Somebody else will surely buy up our debt.

Japan maybe, or the oil sheiks.

Or the Easter Bunny.

In the meantime, everybody's lining up hoping to grab a piece of the next big economic stimulus package.

Big Auto. The states. Road builders. Education. Even retail wants in.

It's the American way.

Beg, borrow and steal our way back to prosperity.

For the record, I agree with the 94 percent of Americans who want to rebuild the nation's infrastructure: our roads, bridges, airports, energy systems and so on.

The logical way to finance such an undertaking would be through carbon taxes on dirty and imported fossil fuels.

Dare I utter the "G" tax word?

The one that strikes terror in the hearts of Auto-Americans?

Thomas Friedman does in his new book "Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we need a green revolution and how it can renew America?":

"It's hard to imagine anything with more positive impacts than increasing the gasoline tax in the United States," he writes. "Gasoline taxes help reduce consumption, shift people to more fuel-efficient vehicles, shrink the amount of money we sent to petrodictators, improve air quality, strengthen the dollar and balance of payments, help mitigate global warming and give citizens a feeling they are contributing to the war on terrorism."

What a kidder.

Actually, carbon taxes would also help create favorable market conditions for massive private sector investment in the development of clean renewable fuels and more efficient transportation and conservation technologies. As it is, every time the price of gasoline takes a dip, green investments become riskier and less profitable.

The result is that instead of spending money here in America on new technologies and green jobs, we just keep sending it overseas to "petrodictators" who do not have our best interests at heart.

It's possible that Obama has read Friedman's book. But don't look for a carbon tax-fueled green revolution anytime soon.

Obama harbors many ambitions, but being a one-termer isn't among them.

Anyway, gas is real cheap right now, and that's just the way we like it.

Hey, who's got the credit card?

Ron Cunningham is editorial page editor for The Sun. He can be reached at or at 352-374-5075. Read his blog, Under The Sun, at

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