What unites Democrats and Republicans is an unwillingness to have a serious debate about how big government should be. Spending is the crucial issue, because it determines taxes and deficits. If they become too large, the resulting depressed economy may make paying for government even harder. Ideally, liberals would see that spending needs to be cut substantially; if it isn’t, tomorrow’s tax increases or deficits will be horrendous. Ideally, conservatives would accept that taxes must ultimately rise; no plausible spending cuts can bridge the gap between government’s promises and its tax base.

There is no sign of this. Liberals and conservatives agree to evade. Spending for the elderly dominates the federal budget, but no one discusses who among retirees deserves government subsidies and at what age. Liberals would increase spending (a.k.a., President Obama’s health proposal) even before addressing existing deficits. President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans could have curbed spending. But they increased it even while cutting taxes, and Obama would keep most tax cuts except for people making over $250,000.

Placid deficits have abetted all these evasions and inconsistencies. As the path of least resistance, they encouraged permissiveness. But with deficits swelling, this easy road may soon close. We may learn how much debt is too much.