Longform on the Issues: Our Fiscal Future

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WNYC asked Longform to pick great stories as background reading for our 30 Issues in 30 Days series. These are stories that help illuminate and humanize the important issues this election year. Part Two of 30 Issues looks at fiscal debt, infrastructure spending, and tax policy. See all the guides here.

For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s app to read the latest picks.


The Purpose of Spectacular Wealth, According to a Spectacularly Wealthy Guy

Adam Davidson | New York Times Magazine | May 2012

A defense of private equity and tax breaks for the rich from a former partner at Bain Capital.

At a nearby table we saw three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair. For all we know, they may have been plotting the next generation’s Twitter, but Conard felt sure they were merely lounging on the sidelines. “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he asked. “I’m sure those guys are college-educated.” Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.



To Have Is To Owe

David Graeber | Triple Canopy | Dec 2010

An exploration of the 5,000 year history of debt from a radical economist -- and inspiration for the Occupy movement.

We hardly know what debt is. The very flexibility of the concept is the basis of its power, and of the moral confusion associated with it. Looking at the history of debt worldwide, one finds that most people have held that paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality and, contradictorily, that anyone in the habit of lending money is evil. Recently, the former position seems to have trumped the latter, owing to a persistent refusal to question our slavish devotion to creditors.



No Death, No Taxes

George Packer | The New Yorker | November 2011

A profile of eBay founder and libertarian futurist Peter Thiel.

Thiel’s venture-capital firm, Founders Fund, has an online manifesto about the future that begins with a complaint: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” He believes that this failure of imagination explains many of the country’s problems—from the collapse in manufacturing to wage stagnation to the swelling of the financial sector. As he puts it, “You have dizzying change where there’s no progress.”



Broke Town, USA

Roger Lowenstein | New York Times Magazine | March 2011

The impact of the financial crisis and the erosion of municipal bonds: crushing debt, infrastructure decay, and the fraying of the social contract.

What if the burden of municipal woes falls elsewhere than on bondholders? Yes, cities and states have creditors. They also have citizens who rely on their services and who pay the taxes, and they have public employees who are dependent on stable public-sector jobs and often-ample benefits. There is a crisis in local government; the crisis is here. The question is, will it be articulated in terms of bond defaults or larger kindergarten classes — or no kindergarten classes at all?



Harrisburg's Failed Infrastructure Project

John Buntin | Governing | December 2010

A town invests in an expensive new incinerator. Then: bureaucratic incompetence, a recession, and all-out bankruptcy.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with borrowing money, particularly to build infrastructure. Done properly, it’s one of the best tools governments have to boost productivity and by extension, raise incomes. Done improperly, there’s no better way to destroy a balance sheet. And that’s where Harrisburg is today. Pennsylvania’s capital is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, a prospect that has spooked bond markets and worried Gov. Ed Rendell, who recently warned that “If Harrisburg fails, every other municipality in Pennsylvania is in danger.”.



Obama vs. Boehner: Who Killed the Debt Deal?

Matt Bai | New York Times Magazine | March 2012

How politics and policy prevented a long-term solution.

At the end of this year, no matter how the presidential election turns out, the two parties will face yet another Armageddon moment in the fight over debt and spending; this time, if they don’t settle on a plan to rein in the nation’s nearly $16 trillion debt, then a series of onerous budget cuts — worth about $1.2 trillion over 10 years, divided between defense and other programs — will automatically go into effect. If we understand what really went on last July, then we’ll have a better sense of how difficult it will be for the two parties to stave off the coming political calamity and why, too, the situation may not be quite as hopeless as it seems.


Brian Lehrer Show producer Jody Avirgan is also a contributing editor to Longform.org. Is there a story that we missed? Comment below or .

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