The National Debt: A Barometer of American Denial

In the last 15 years, the national debt has nearly quadrupled.

It took the presidencies of George Washington through Bill Clinton (over 200 years) to reach $5 trillion in debt. In just two presidencies (2001-2015), George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the debt has gone up $14 trillion more, to nearly $19 trillion (and counting).

Both political parties have run the White House and the Congress during this time.

This is a widely known, but also widely evaded fact. Members of Congress and even Republican presidential candidates, with rare exception, proceed as if the debt does not matter; otherwise, they’d at least be talking about it.

The federal debt is complex, but it’s also just like any other type of debt: spending what you do not have. In the case of the federal debt, it’s probably fair to say there’s no possibility of ever repaying it.

Economists all seem to agree that the debt will inevitably have some kind of negative consequence. Otherwise, why not raise the debt limit into infinity? We could borrow without limit, paying for health care and everything else voting citizens might ever want or need from the government. If borrowing did not matter, it would really be possible to get something for nothing.

The question never asked is perhaps even more interesting:

What do we have to show for this debt?

Debt is supposed to be temporary. A country, like an individual, should only borrow for a good reason and in a context where the fulfillment of the payment will lead to a better state of affairs than previously was the case.

For example, a nation might go into debt to fight and win a Civil War, in order to outlaw slavery and preserve the Constitution. Or a nation might go into debt to fight and defeat Adolf Hitler, to prevent the world (including America) from turning into a fascist state. Or a nation might borrow to strengthen its nuclear arsenal, to face down an opponent like Soviet Russia, winning the Cold War.

Some think that government spending creates wealth and prosperity. This is plainly untrue, because in order to spend money on government programs, the government must borrow, steal or otherwise manipulate and take away from the private economy to attain its ends. If the government does what the private, free market would have done anyway, the programs are an expensive waste of time; if the government does things that would never have been profitable for individuals in the private economy to do, such action obviously harms the economy. People in the free market, or in their own lives, face the prospect of net gain or net loss; they pay for their mistakes. The government and the politicians who fund and run it generally do not.

Even if you accept the claim that government spending “stimulates” economic growth, then you should see unparalleled growth after all the spending and borrowing we have seen, especially in the last 15 years. But that’s not the case. Government has spent more on business subsidies and Social Security/disability/Medicare/Medicaid/food stamps/unemployment than at any time in its history; and the economy is anemic, at best. “Shovel ready” projects were promised, and after billions in spending our infrastructure still crumbles.

We’re spending ourselves into oblivion … and have nothing to show for it.

There’s no defeat of ISIS to justify the spending; that would arguably have been worth it. In fact, the threat of Islamic terrorism is growing, as we can see simply by watching the news every other day. Unemployment is still high, by the standards of the historic American economy. More people report having given up on work than ever before, distorting the unemployment figures downward.

Debt is supposed to be temporary, and for an important purpose. Instead, our debt is at unsustainable, record levels for no discernable purpose– other than to keep insolvent government programs like Medicare and Social Security going, as well as to foster government dependence on millions of new immigrants (some of them terrorists planning to attack us.)

People who pay taxes their whole lives into these programs rightfully feel, “That’s my money. I’m entitled to get back what I paid.”

But the reality is that these programs are fiscally insolvent and economically unsustainable. They are big fat lies. Most people are not paying into them even close to what they expect to get out of them. If Medicare and Social Security were private businesses, they would be long gone; in fact, at the stage they are now, the trustees and owners of these programs would probably have been tried on criminal charges of fraud and malfeasance.

Nobody wants to talk about privatization of Medicare and Social Security, not even for people presently in their 20s, 30s and 40s. But those programs are in the process of privatizing themselves via insolvency. They will go away on their own, via bankruptcy. We keep spending more and more on them, with fewer and fewer people – most of whom have less and less money – to pay for them.

A shrinking private economy, a growing welfare-entitlement state and endless new immigrants who qualify for welfare the moment they become citizens (if not sooner). The national debt is a barometer of these trends, one from which everyone in charge works to avert his or her gaze.

Talking about privatization is not only an ideological position – although it should be one, because government never should have been in the insurance business, in the first place. Force is wrong, and government should have stuck to the Constitutional basics of protecting us from bad guys (i.e., initiators of force or fraud). Privatization is simply a reflection of the fact that these programs are not going to last anyway, so we had better start planning now.

Yet nobody will go there.

When I hear about the federal debt’s continual rise, I don’t only think about politics. I think about real people, millions of them, fooling themselves into believing that any entity can spend way, way more than it brings in, and somehow sustain itself over time.

America is full of ignorance and willful denial. The politicians reflect this; they’re the symptom, more than the cause.

No individual can remain in complete denial forever. Just ask any former substance abuser, gambling addict, or anyone with a comparable problem.

When watching the presidential candidates this year and next, pay attention to the topic they’re NOT talking about: the national debt. They will not talk about it, other than in a very superficial way, because it’s the ultimate, most blatant reminder that we cannot go on like we are.

It’s probably true that no presidential candidate who spoke the truth would win. But ultimately, who’s the most to blame for that: The politicians, or the people themselves?


You can follow Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1