The National Debt and the New Religion of Government

Line graph depicting 18 trillion dollars

We have all heard the saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, while expecting different results.”

A variation on this saying is, “Insanity is watching people doing the same thing over and over again — all the while pretending it’s something new and different.”

Consider the latest on the national debt “limit.”

The U.S. will hit its debt limit on March 16 but with some  “extraordinary measures” it will be able to fund the government on a temporary basis, according to U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, who urged Congress in a letter to raise the debt limit immediately.

In the letter to House Speaker John Boehner and other House and Senate leaders, Lew said on March 13 his office would have to suspend the issuance of some local and state securities, reports CNBC.

“Accordingly, I respectfully ask Congress to raise the debt limit as soon as possible,” Lew wrote in his letter.

In the letter, Lew assured that increasing the debt limit did not necessarily mean approving new spending but instead allowed the federal government to pay for existing expenses.

His letter came on the heels of a Congressional Budget Office report Tuesday that said if the U.S. federal debt limit is not raised, the U.S. Treasury Department will exhaust all of its borrowing capacity and run out of cash in October or November, slightly later than a previous forecast.

Normal U.S. borrowing authority under the debt limit is due to expire on March 15. If Congress fails to raise or extend the debt limit, Treasury will need to begin employing extraordinary cash management measures to continue borrowing. [from yesterday]

We all know that the U.S. Congress will raise the debt limit and continue raising the debt limit, into “infinity” — which, when translated means: until something happens that makes such action impossible.

Most of us are not economists. I’m not sure even the better economists know precisely what will happen on our current course.

What I do know about is psychological denial, fueled by intellectual evasion. I know that the reason we keep having to raise the debt limit is because the government spends way, way, way more than it takes in, or could ever hope to take in, even with massive tax increases that, if implemented, would probably shut down the private sector completely.

I also know, without being an economist, that the primary expenditures of government are entitlement programs. These primarily refer to Medicare and Social Security, along with the expansions brought about in Medicaid by “Obamacare.”

I know that most voters will not consider even miniscule cuts in any of these programs, to say nothing of questioning their sustainability in principle. As a result, both political parties evade and ignore the issue as they keep raising the debt limit into the fallacious abstraction of “infinity.”

In a weird way, it makes some psychological sense. Think about it. Government — not in its original American sense as a protector of rights, but in the modern sense of a provider of benefits — has become the new religion. I define “religion” as the faith-based belief (regardless of evidence) in a supernatural being or higher power who provides well-being to a faithful people. Like today’s debt-expanding-into-infinity Government, the supernatural God or Allah is viewed as a being of infinite power and wisdom.

Interestingly, that’s precisely what government has become. It’s a faith-based entity thought capable of providing an infinite, unending amount of always expanding benefits for an indeterminate period of time.

I realize that the issue is complicated by the fact that many people do pay into these programs via payroll taxes. However, the total amount being paid into these programs does not begin to cover the demand created by the programs, particularly by an aging population.

The absurd travesty every year or two of watching the Congress and the President act to raise the national debt limit is a manifestation of this evasion.

When an individual is in denial, he or she suffers from a sense of hubris, i.e. a feeling of over optimism or self-inflicted ignorance about the consequences of his or her actions. Societies and governments, in the end, consist of human individuals, all of whom are subject to the errors of denial or evasion. When done on a national scale, this is what goes on.

The meaningless distinctions between Republicans and Democrats actually fuel the problem. It’s kind of like a married couple who stays together despite hateful abuse and chronic discord. In a perverse yet psychologically reinforcing way, the couple “need” each other to blame and hate in order not to face the really ugly and compelling truth that awaits them once they finally confront objective reality.

Republicans and Democrats, like that warring couple, “need” each other in order to pretend that they’re not both responsible for the mess we’re in, because none of them will tell the truth to the American people and face the consequences of possibly losing an election or two for it.

We’re still a democracy, so the people (the majority, at least) are ultimately the ones to blame. We keep on going about our business thinking none of this matters, and so long as government keeps providing — into a nonexistent “infinity” — all will be well.

It all started when we failed to question the premise that the purpose of government is to provide rather than protect.

Why not face the truth now?

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