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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

O'Reilly: Fear and loathing in the voting booth

A resident casts a vote at a polling

A resident casts a vote at a polling place in Central Islip on Sept. 13, 2012. Photo Credit: Ed Betz

It's amazing how quickly things can go awry.

That's the lesson of Sandy, and it has to be considered in the voting booth on Tuesday.

One day you're sitting in an armchair watching a weather forecast on CNN; five days later, television, lights, heat, communications, fresh food, drinking water and gasoline can be critically unavailable.

Just like that, the illusory comforts of life are gone, and the stark reality of our frailty as people stares us in the eye.

Is the same thing true of nations, though? Is it possible that the greatness of our country is chimerical, that it is a house of cards posing as a fortress?

Harvard historian and author Niall Ferguson believes it is, and if he's right, Tuesday's election may truly be the most important in our lifetimes.

Ferguson, who believes America's growing debt crisis is its real Frankenstorm, first outlined his fears in a 2010 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine.

"Great powers are complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid," he wrote. "They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems 'go critical.' A very small trigger can set off a 'phase transition' from a benign equilibrium to a crisis -- a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse."

Ferguson cites in his writings the sudden collapse of empires throughout history, from the Holy Roman Empire to the Soviet Union, with debt being the underlying cause of the downfall. Those who find the notion of rapid national decline alarmist might recall how quickly the economic collapse of 2008 occurred, erasing 40 percent of the average American's wealth until this day. They might also note that every penny of Federal Emergency Management Agency aid going to New York and New Jersey right now is borrowed, either from China or against future generations.

Ferguson's is the lens through which I am looking at the election as a voter and as a parent. My greatest fear for our country is that our debt, when it hits a critical mass, will lead to hyperinflation and systemic unemployment for my daughters' generation, the way it did for tens of millions of Hungarians and Germans 80 years ago.

For that reason I find it hard to imagine how any thinking person can be planning to support a free-spending president like President Barack Obama for re-election at this point in our history, even though many of my friends and half my siblings are planning to "pull the lever" for him, presumably with the same zeal in which I plan to vote for Gov. Mitt Romney. I am afraid to press my wife for an answer about whom she'll be supporting because I think I know.

I just don't get it.

There is no guarantee that a President Romney -- even with deficit hawk Paul Ryan as his vice president -- will do what's necessary to reverse America's hellbent path toward bankruptcy, but President Obama's first term in office proves that he won't be the one who will stop the overspending.

While Ferguson and other very smart people were racking their brains for solutions to America's potentially catastrophic debt crisis, Obama was forcing through the most expensive new entitlement program in American history in Obamacare. To debtwatchers, that was madness.

Robust economic growth is the only way America can crawl itself out of the hole, and I suppose Tuesday's winner will be the candidate most Americans believe can give us that growth.

I remain stunned that so many believe it is Obama.

America will survive either presidency but, if it stays on its current course, not as the world's pre-eminent power.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.