Over the past three generations, America’s leaders have faced down the Depression, won World War II, won the Cold War, created Social Security and Medicare, passed the Civil Rights Act and dramatically expanded environmental protection. The record is one of boldness and triumph.

Today, America’s leaders face the challenge of reducing giveaways to special-interest groups. That is what the national debt issue boils down to — do Congress and the White House have what it takes to say “no” to interest groups that want to be showered with borrowed money?

Anybody can agree to a giveaway. In politics, nothing is easier than handing out bags of candy while making empty promises about fiscal discipline in the future. No mettle is required endlessly to say that this year everybody gets everything they want but look out, next year we get serious.

Saying “no” is often the essence of leadership. To address the national debt, Congress and the White House must say no to tax favors for the affluent, no to Social Security benefits for people who don’t need them, no to a defense budget that lacks discipline, no to the pass-along mentality of health care, no to handouts for agriculture, for the states, for programs that feather someone’s nest but make no sense. (Such as $200 million in subsidies per year to fly mostly empty planes to towns only an hour’s drive from a large airport.) No to the countless interest groups that want fiscal restraint in other people’s programs, but view their own handouts as a super ultra-crisis.

Ponder what American leaders of the near past have overcome, and you’ll feel something close to shame that today’s leaders depict merely reducing giveaways to special-interest groups as a challenge of epic proportions.

The threat before the nation is not hostile foreign powers or racial hatred — the threat is our own political system’s lack of accountability for giveaways. The beast that must be tamed is quite timid compared to beasts of the near past. Yet the country’s leaders fear the slightest step in its direction.

Threats such as World War II and the Cold War were external in nature, and human nature often responds more readily to external concerns. The national debt threat is internal, arising from faults in ourselves — in our political system’s demand from unlimited champagne today, with the bill sent to future generations.

No sinister outsiders forced the national debt on us: we did it to ourselves, with eyes open. We borrowed and spent as if tomorrow would never come — and now it’s here. Just eight months ago, in December 2010, President Barack Obama and the leaders of Congress — including the House Republicans leaders now crying disaster about the debt ceiling — enacted $930 billion in new tax favors, giveaways and handouts. Knowing the national debt was getting worse fast, they agreed to borrow-and-spend in an irresponsible manner.

No outsider forced this on us — we did it to ourselves.

Have our leaders the courage possessed by American leaders of the near past, the courage to do what the country needs regardless of what is popular? Have our leaders the courage to ask for shared sacrifice — with the rich, the middle class, entitlement recipients and corporations all surrendering something?

Can Barack Obama, John Boehner, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell show us they have so much as one-half the leadership strength of their forebears who faced down Communism and brought civil rights to the whole of the nation?

Stated in today’s dollars, one decade ago the national debt was $6.9 trillion. Today it is $14.3 trillion — meaning that adjusted for inflation, the United States has borrowed more money in the last decade than in its previous 212 years of existence. And this has been done when there is no national emergency! The country has all manner of problems, but faces nothing remotely like the emergency of World War II.

The runaway borrowing has occurred under Republicans and Democrats, beginning with George W. Bush in 2007, who launched the ruinous Iraq adventure based entirely on borrowed money, and continuing to Obama, who has backed three “stimulus” giveaways despite clear evidence that this doesn’t work. At the current pace, the national debt will hit $23 trillion in 10 years, meaning the country will have borrowed twice as much in two decades as in its previous 212 years of existence.

Worse, the runaway borrowing has occurred before the baby boomers retire. Americans have known for decades that starting around 2015, spending for pensioners and their health care must rise. Rather than save in preparation for that day, the nation’s leaders of both parties have spent with abandon. When the young borrow to spend wildly, society calls that irresponsible. When the middle-aged borrow to spend wildly, they call themselves presidents, senators, representatives and governors.

The national debt is not only bad in and of itself — surely economic recovery is being held back by the unchecked debt. Investors perceive U.S. leadership of both parties to be self-absorbed and unconcerned with the greater good, so they ship their capital to nations with better long-term prospects.

Previous generations of American leaders saved the country from grave predicaments. The current generation is asked only to reign in giveaways. Do the people in Washington have this in them?

[Cross-posted at Reuters.com]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook has published three novels and eight nonfiction books, mostly recently It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1979 to 1981.