We’re addicted to federal spending. Until that fact changes our national debt isn’t going anywhere.
The folks in Washington are never going to stop spending money unless we literally toss them out of office for failing to do so. Since almost all of us benefit from federal spending in one form or another, it seems unlikely we’re prepared to storm the Capitol as an angry voting mob demanding less.
At present our national government is just shy of $17 trillion in debt. We will add about half a trillion to the national debt this year. We haven’t had a surplus year since 2001 and have paid off our national debt only once — in 1835.
The national debt isn’t a partisan issue. Multiple presidents from both parties contributed to its growth, as have majorities in Congress on both sides of the aisle. It’s also not exclusive to the Great Recession.
The national debt and annual budget deficits have been around a long time, but rarely did we pay much attention to them. We treated news stories on the budget deficit a lot like the stock market report before we all got 401(k) plans. It was there, but we didn’t pay much attention to it.
Budget deficits and the national debt didn’t enter our consciousness until political fights over raising the so-called debt ceiling escalated. Most of us didn’t even know there was a debt ceiling, much less a need to raise it every six months.
That’s when we began paying attention to how much money our country borrowed to operate each year and how much debt we’ve accumulated. In 2009 the annual deficit topped $1 trillion for the first time.
Most of us are old enough to remember when $1 trillion was the entire debt rather than the annual deficit.
As the saying in Washington goes, “A few billion here, a few billion there . . . pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”
Well, $17 trillion is real money.
The Congressional Budget Office projected in February the annual federal deficit would shrink to $514 billion this year, which ends Sept. 30. The deficit is tracking $187 billion lower than last year through March. To put that in perspective, the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, is worth a paltry $77.5 billion.
We all like government spending because we all benefit from it. Older people are on Medicare and draw Social Security checks each month. Millions of retirees draw federal pensions. Even the local volunteer fire department’s new fire truck was most likely courtesy of a federal grant. We all feed from the trough in one way or another.
We’ve also fought a lot of wars over the years. Having the best military in the world is a near universal mandate in these dangerous times.
Yet very few of us understand the intricacies of federal budgeting. We get angry when the government spends money for things we don’t understand or like. Foreign aid and ag subsidies tend to rank high on the list for many. Waste and fraud are certainly present in most big government programs, to be sure. That aside, most government spending is well-intentioned if poorly executed.
Need is universal. Resources are not.
At home we stop spending when we run out of money. To go beyond that, we charge items to a revolving credit card account. If we go overboard, Visa shuts us down. That’s called a credit limit and it’s a mechanism that doesn’t really exist with the federal government.
The only way to put a credit limit on Washington is for voters to demand it, and the only way to make such a demand is to put our own piece of the largesse on the line.
Would you vote for someone who cuts Social Security benefits? Even though we all should, we won’t. Our sense of entitlement when it comes to federal dollars is ingrained to the point of addiction. We’re all for cutting someone else’s benefits, just don’t touch our own.
We can’t walk away from this $17 trillion. It is money we owe ourselves for the most part, and abdication would destroy the “full faith and credit” of this country. The global economy would collapse inside of a month.
The last time our nation was debt-free was during Andrew Jackson’s second term as president. Jackson absolutely hated debt. He made it the top priority of his presidency. He crusaded for six years to ensure this country paid off the $58 million in debt it owed. Of course, we were only debt-free for one year, but at least we know it can be done.
If only we could find someone who hated debt as much as Old Hickory . . . either in Washington or in our own mirrors.
Steve Boggs is editor of the Tribune-Herald. Email email@example.com.