THAT'S THE SOUND of the political ratchet moving America inexorably in the only direction in which the political ratchet works: toward welfare statism, and the cliff of fiscal disaster.
The latest example is the political fever to extend a below-market interest rate on federal student loans. The rate is scheduled to double on July 1 to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent.
The timing is no accident. Democrats ruled the universe duing the first two years of the Obama administration. They could have frozen the rate or reduced it. Instead, they left the scheduled rate bump in place to preserve a useful political issue.
The federal student loan program has taken the place of the federal subprime mortgage program as a way to pump other people's money into the pockets of as many potential voters as possible, regardless of true need, creditworthiness, or the true cost of credit.
Having hooked many young people with teaser rates and loan amounts that cannot be repaid in this crippled economy, the welfare statists now have a reliable voting bloc that can be driven like sheep by promises of low interest rates -- worth more than $3000 a year to someone with $100,000 in debt.
The game will never end, of course, because even if low rates are ever frozen in place, the left will promise other goodies -- interest-free payment deferrals for the unemployed, forgiveness for graduates who promise to work in politically favored occupations such as government, government, government, or community organizing.
Never mind that the United States is going broke. Never mind that all the loans and interest reductions are paid with money borrowed -- at least until they go broke -- from the Chinese. Never mind arithmetic or reality or morality. What matters is politics.
So the president, on cue, demands congressional action to extend the below-market interest rate. And what do we get from the alleged adult party, the daddy party, the party that promises to put a stop to the part about America's going broke?
Mr. Romney and the GOP break into a chorus of "Anything you can do (I can do better)."
"No you can't!" "Yes I can!"
If this is the model of how Mitt Romney will deal as president with the demands of the left, we are surely ruined. He can never win the bidding war, and if his idea of compromise is to let the left set the agenda, then match each bid, but with a faux conservative rider -- we must offset the spending elsewhere -- then he's not up to the demands of the moment. That's not enough. The spending is always real and now, the offsets always cosmetic and in futuro.
Well before July 1, the rate will be frozen again, at least temporarily, to protect the poor dears who borrowed money they should not have been lent in the first place in many instances, and cannot dream of paying back anytime soon, in many more.
Why do the Republicans go along with this ruinous fiscal policy?
Because if they don't, millions of very angry young people will vote for Mr. Obama. Democrats have succeeded in creating yet another cadre of takers to pilfer the pockets of the dwindling proportion of makers. And the takers -- like Greek rioters, French mobs, and Occupiers -- must ever be propitiated.
That's it. That's the whole point. The ratchet does its work. America slides another click toward perpetual welfare statism and fiscal disaster.
And who shows up to cheer?
Silly question. The Houston Chronicle.
The newspaper occasionally mutters a word or two about fiscal discipline, meaning higher taxes, but can be counted on to help pull the lever that moves America leftward.
[President] Obama and Mitt Romney had a rare moment of political harmony this week when both called for Congress to extend temporary relief on interest rates for students. And if both presidential candidates agree on a domestic policy, it's probably a good idea. (Editorial, "Keep interest rates low on student loans," Houston Chronicle, April 25, 2012)
The first big chuckle here is the idea that lower interest rates will be temporary. Why would the left ever agree to increase them? The issue is too potent, politically, to surrender.
The second chuckle: "it's probably a good idea."
Well, no it's not. And if the Chronicle ever bothered to hire a conservative editorialist or columnist, she might well explain why.
The substance of the newspaper's argument is that education is good (it is) and therefore taxpayer loans to students who wish to buy education are good (not necessarily) and therefore below-market interest rates are good (no).
Followed by the jerking of tears.
Since their childhoods, these Millennial students have been told that a college degree is key for personal success. But now they are graduating to find a weak job market that leaves a majority of recent college grads either jobless or underemployed, all the while owing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.
It would be a mistake to throw another burden on this educated workforce that potentially drives our nation's economic engine.
It's time for members of both parties to play follow the leader and keep interest rates low for student loans.
What it's time to do is to stop lending federal money to people who don't need student loans or who can never hope to repay them. To stop politicizing the market for loans and loan rates. To stop undermining self-reliance and personal responsibility in every possible transaction in life. To stop encouraging the American people to bury themselves in personal debt. To stop pretending that the poor students are not, in fact, ruined either way: whether by market interest on their loans or by yet more federal debt that, in time, they will have to pay anyway. To stop creating dependency. To stop purchasing votes with borrowed money.
Instead, the president pulls the lever and Republicans go ka-ching!
The ratchet ratchets.
* * *
A final thought in response to the beard-tuggers who say Mr. Romney has no practical alternative, politically. They're right. If he were to do the right thing about the student loan rates -- about student loans in general -- and about every other goodie the president will serially fling into public discourse, he will lose the election. The American people are already enervated and de-moralized by the culture of dependency. Voters sense the peril and want something done about runaway spending, so long as all the goodies left in place. The American people, in this sense, may also not be up to the demands of this moment.
Which offers Mr. Romney the invitation to become a leader on the scale of Washington, Lincoln, F. Roosevelt, or Reagan. Can he envison what must be done, then bring the American people along as he does it? Or will he satisfy himself with being another big-government incrementalist, another George W. Bush, pulling the same lever on the same ratchet, just a bit more slowly? If he does that, he will find himself running for reelection in 1216 with the same two weary arguments Mr. Obama uses today: Things could be worse. And I'm still not as bad as the last guy.
The only difference: Mr. Obama is wrong; Mr. Romney would be right, disappointingly so.