Schansberg: A Disastrous, Immoral U.S. Debt
It’s always more fun to spend money than to make it. And it can be tempting to borrow or steal money, instead of earning it. What’s true in our private lives is true with the government as well.
Politicians are known for exaggerating the benefits and downplaying the costs of public policy. Spending and debt are great examples. Enjoy the benefits now; get the media to trumpet them in the news; and brag about them in the next election cycle.
The costs? Let’s spread them out across the population so they’re difficult to notice. (A $1 billion federal program usually harms the economy and benefits a politically powerful interest group, but it only costs $3 per person.) Better yet: let’s make future taxpayers pick up our tab.
The federal government spends am incredible amount of money these days — about $6 trillion per year ($18,000 per person). It raises a ton of money in taxes (about $4 trillion per year or $12,000 per person, but not enough to pay for all of that spending. The result is large annual budget deficits and an increasing national debt — now, more than $30 trillion ($90,000 per person). And none of this includes other federal liabilities, such as Social Security, Medicare, and government pensions.
As with our personal finances, there are limits to debt — or more precisely, what investors are willing to lend. As debt increases, the perceived risk increases. The borrower is more likely to default — or in the case of the federal government, to use inflation to “pay back” the debt with cheapened dollars.
When investors get nervous about risk, they will insist on higher interest rates or will be unwilling to lend at all. The government increasing risk is obviously dangerous — and a default would clearly be damaging — to anyone with wealth (especially the elderly) and the economy.
The debt is also undemocratic. For all of our supposed passion about democracy, this point gets no attention. Who are we to take resources from those in the future — to pay for our stuff today? They get no vote in the matter; they do not give their consent. Taxation is troubling enough, but what is the morality of imposing debt and higher taxes on the future?
Until recent years, deficits and debt were mostly a war-time concern in the U.S. Under threat, governments will spend and borrow, often leading to post-war financial and economic troubles. (Germany after World War I is the classic example.) A cousin of this: President Reagan ran modest budget deficits in the 1980s at the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the USSR, President Clinton and a conservative GOP Congress gave us smaller deficits and even a tiny surplus or two.
But the last two decades have brought bipartisan profligacy. The last four presidents have been spendthrifts. A feckless Congress has given us a terrible budget process, independent of which major political party is in charge. The federal government can’t do much effectively, except spend money. The outcome: tremendous deficits and a mounting debt.
In February, a bipartisan group of 18 U.S. Representatives wrote Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy, asking them to address the issue. That’s a promising start, but even their prescriptions were vague. What can we do?
The most powerful and realistic approach would be to freeze federal spending. (Don’t fall for the term “spending cuts.” In D.C. this only means to reduce the rate of growth of spending.) The deficit would fall quickly, as tax revenues rise with inflation, increased productivity and population growth. Even more important: investors would know that we were treating our spending and debt addictions seriously.
Or maybe we should end the Congressional pension if they don’t fix this. Why should our elected officials get another retirement income after working merely five years in D.C. — ironically adding even more to the debt—especially if they can’t handle this basic function properly?
The stakes are too high — for the country, and as is often the case, for the marginal in our society. We can no longer afford the rampant spending and our immoral, dangerous and undemocratic debt.
Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is professor of economics at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany.