The Book: Glenn Beck’s Broke
The Gist: This book makes the case for the American nation’s current state of moral, spiritual, and financial poverty, and suggests ways to “restore trust, truth, and treasure”. It starts with the pre-revolutionary war period and chronicles the attitude of the Founders and their contemporaries toward frugality, thrift, debt, and hard work. This book accentuates its narrative through the quotes of the individuals under discussion, and a trio of quotes from the late eighteenth century well characterizes the Founders’ zeitgeist as it pertains to money and governance. The first quote is from legendary classical economist Adam Smith:
Little else is required to carry a state to the highest degree of affluence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart the natural course are unnatural and, to support themselves, are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical
These next two quotes well characterize the Founders’ attitude toward debt in particular, that is, if Jefferson’s attempt at having a balanced-budget amendment weaved into the Bill of Rights wasn’t signal enough:
[debt is] an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave driver – Ambrose Bierce
Moreover, after the United States acquired a large amount of debt as a consequence of the Revolutionary War; Andrew Jackson, noting that debt was a “national curse” that destroyed individual liberty in favor of the monied and powerful elites, had this to say about the yoke the country had placed around its neck:
My vow shall be to pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country
This hostility to debt remained through the country’s early history, as presidents from Jackson onward sought to drive our debt down to zero. However, at the close of the nineteenth century, the elites’ attitude toward debt changed with the advent of the economic theories of Lord Keynes and debt-driven growth. These economic theories were music to the ears of a new crop of intellectuals who broke with the traditions of Classical Liberalism and favored more “State” when considering the rights of man vis-a-vis the State. Although this shift in America started during the Wilson administration, with his social gospel and big spending, big government, big welfare agenda, it was further incubated by Hoover and fully implemented under FDR. Indeed, the governing class’ attitudes toward the role of government as a service provider rather than a mere guarantor of natural rights is best characterized by FDR’s so-called “Second Bill of Rights“. But the Great Depression wasn’t enough to pressure Americans to fully accept the newly muscular State; it would take a total war for that. Enter WWII, which offered Progressives their big chance to redraw the American citizens’ relationship to his government, to turn the responsibility society into the entitlement society. Beck writes:
Before the New Deal, most Americans were strongly suspicious of federal power. The grand tradition of self-reliance, free enterprise, local control, and a strong civil society voluntarily helping neighbors in need has persisted throughout American history. While the New Deal presented a more activist government, it was WWII that fundamentally altered the relationship between the American people and their government. In order to defeat Germany and Japan, federal power expanded like never before. Washington decided what goods industry would produce, and when it would produce it. The federal government even provided Americans with ration books specifying how much meat, gasoline, sugar, and other items they could purchase. It was a scary combination, but big business and government collaborated to run the economy for the sake of the war. After the war, some feared another depression. Instead, the American economy continued to prosper. In what journalist Robert Samuelson called the “cult of Affluence”, the American people came to take economic prosperity for granted
Fast-forwarding to the 60s and the 70s, Beck continues this thread of a debt-driven expansion of the State at the expense of individual liberty. His narrative now centers on Progressive presidents LBJ and Nixon; the former’s Great Society merely extended FDR’s New Deal, while the latter president completed LBJ’s reforms while cementing the deal by taking the USA off of the gold standard for good.
Beck writes how debt continued to soar under presidents Reagan, Bush, and Clinton as the elected leadership lied, broke campaign promises, or just plain succumbed to the culture of Washington corruption. Party affiliation did not seem to matter when it came to expanding the role of government and engaging in a spending spree; in fact, by most measures, Republican administrations expanded the government further and spent more profligately than did Democrat ones, particularly during the term of “compassionate conservative” GW Bush. As a result, America ran deficits in 44 of the last 50 years, and in 9 of the last 10. Total federal spending rocketed 242% in the last 40 years, while household income only climbed 29%, as Congress and the executive branch engaged in accounting trickery (“on budget”, “off budget”, and deceptively titled “pay go“) and brinksmanship and pork barrel spending (“emergency omnibus spending bills”) in their desperate attempts to keep the entitlement society running. Yet, as Beck writes, this debt-fuelled expansion cannot go on forever, if for no other reason than interest payments on the debt will triple (as a share of the budget) and quadruple (in absolute 2010 dollars) between now and 2020, choking off discretionary spending as a proportion of the budget.
After having told the sad tale of the squandering of America’s treasure and abuse of the American public’s trust on the part of her administrators, the last third of Beck’s book lays out a plan of sorts to set America back on the path. Consisting of seven parts, Beck suggests we:
1) Return the government to the Constitutional Republic it was established to be, and re-align the concept of civil rights with the natural rights of man versus the rights government grants men
2) Return to equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome
3) Restore the role of religion in American society, particularly where religions exhort us to care for each other, rather than task government to accomplish this for us
4) Decentralize government power away from Washington, as designed by the Constitution. This will save money, enhance freedom, permit the “laboratory of democracy to function once again”, and make difficult the re-distribution of wealth at the Federal level
5) Use these times of emergency and crisis to pass balanced-budget, term limits, and line-item veto amendments, as well as returning “impoundment authority” to the executive
6) Just start cutting, starting with DoE and DoEd, but also going after DoD as well, as not only is the national debt a national security issue, but a vulnerability that our adversaries seek to exploit:
We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah – Osama bin Laden
7) Replace the present redistributive and special-interest loophole-laden tax code with a flat tax.
Overall, this is one of Beck’s better books, particularly in his description of how America has transformed from a society of self-reliance to one of entitlement. Recommended reading.
About the author: EW is a well-trained monkey charged with operating heavier-than-air machinery. His interests outside of being an opinionated rabble-rouser are hunting, working out, motorcycling, spending time with his family, and flying. He is a father to three, a husband to one, and is a sometime contributor here at Spearhead. More of his intolerable drivel is available at the blog The Elusive Wapiti.