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The deficit Americans should think about most: personal character

Our huge public debt ultimately reflects our lack of individual restraint. But we can do better.

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From council rooms in small towns to the marble corridors of Capitol Hill, Americans are rightly focusing on ways to halt the tide of red ink.

Facing huge budget shortfalls, states like California and New York are considering radical cuts to balance their books. President Obama acknowledged the seriousness of the problem in his State of the Union message, calling it a "mountain" that could bury us and urging a five-year partial budget freeze. The president is right to admonish us about the magnitude of the problem that he helped mightily to exacerbate. Political leaders who are serious about fiscal discipline deserve some credit for finally acting to correct course.

But even the most aggressive measures to reform federal spending won't address the underlying cause of our public debt.

That's because the deficit that matters most is not denominated in dollars at all. Its currency is of the heart and mind. It's a manifestation of the values with which we circumscribe our actions, our purposes, and our values. I speak of a deficit of character, which arguably is the root of all of our major economic and social troubles today.

Your character is not defined by what you say you believe. It's defined by the choices you make. History painfully records that when a people allow their personal character to dissipate, they become putty in the hands of tyrants and demagogues. Such tyranny often takes the form of actual rulers, but it can also involve the serfdom of our nobler nature to a lord of lustful impulse. Decadence can destroy democracy as surely as dictatorship.

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