A nation can play financial make-believe for a long time. Right up until the moment when it can't.
The moment when:
• It can no longer fund even well-established entitlements. This is coming for unreformed Medicare in a few years and for Social Security a bit further down the road, in case anyone is interested. (Our elected federal officials apparently aren't.)
• It can no longer borrow money at reasonably affordable rates. America's credit rating has been downgraded once already -- for the first time in our nation's history -- and additional downgrades seem increasingly likely, which means we'll pay higher interest rates on all that borrowing that Washington keeps doing. If you think the few hundred billion dollars we're currently dishing out in annual interest on the national debt is a lot, wait just a few years.
• It at last has to slash bloated government payrolls because excessive taxes and regulations have destroyed private-sector investment and therefore tax revenue, and government can no longer cover up the destructive effects of those taxes and regulations by borrowing from other countries to make up the difference.
Erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul captured the essence of this painful charade with a remark he made back in 2010 about the prospects for repealing Obamacare.
Congress might or might not manage to undo that law, he said, but "the bankruptcy of this country is going to repeal it. . [G]overnment won't be able to pay anything out."
And that brings to mind a wry, disturbingly accurate observation by James Burnham, one of the early voices at National Review magazine.
"When there's no alternative, there's no problem," he said.
How dreadfully true.
When the money is gone, the money will simply be gone. And there will be no "problem" -- at least not in the sense of deciding what path to take. The spending will stop because it will have to stop. There will be no choice, no matter what the consequences.
Oh, there will be pain, to be sure. In particular, those who have come to rely on the federal government as Lady Bountiful will wail and demand that somebody do something - anything.
But it will be all over but the shouting. And then there will be an honest, if grim, return to something resembling reality.