The national debt has surged more than half a trillion dollars in the last three weeks, as the suspension of the debt ceiling in late October has allowed the government to borrow as much as it wants.
— Report in The Washington Examiner
America’s national debt is approaching $19 trillion, and has surged over the least several weeks. This is in part thanks to the decision of Paul Ryan, our new Speaker of the House, to set aside efforts to defund Planned Parenthood or require reductions in the pace of spending increases and instead pass a “clean” suspension of the debt ceiling. Of course, we must give credit where it is due; since President Barack Obama took office the national debt has increased by more than $8 trillion.
The reader may be excused for being surprised at this rather alarming news. After all, we have seen almost no reporting on the size of the national debt since the last time there was a Republican in the White House. Journalists in the mainstream media might respond to the implied criticism of this remark by pointing out that it is the Republican Party that (occasionally) shows what they consider an unhealthy fixation on the national debt. By the press’ logic, this makes it reasonable to avoid charging President Obama, who makes no pretense of caring much about debt, with hypocrisy. But hypocrisy is not the point, whatever “gotcha’” journalists may think. Some members of Congress, at least, continue to worry that we are burdening our nation and our children with unsustainable debt; for decades a small but not unsubstantial group has sought to bring federal spending under control in part at least to address the problem of massive deficits. The reason for the lack of reporting rather obviously is that neither this administration nor the press cares to think about what a national debt is, what it does, or what it says about us, the currently “ruling” generation.
The spike in deficit spending under this president, and especially under the suspension of the debt ceiling allowed for by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, shows two deeply troubling elements of our current political class: it does not care about the debt it is leaving to our children, and it sees no way of reducing spending that it is willing to present to the American people as a plan of prudent action. In more general terms, our current congressional leadership is willing for political reasons to simply leave in the hands of a president who has shown not the slightest indication of discipline or feelings of responsibility toward the nation he purports to lead, the power to spend as he sees fit, unbound by meaningful legal or even political restraints.
Anyone who looks to the experiences of interwar Germany, or of scores of nations in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa (one thinks in particular of Zimbabwe) cannot help but recognize that at some point hyperinflation will set in as the only means by which such debts can be paid. Purveyors of national funding for all things are able to obfuscate all such data because we have yet to fall off the fiscal cliff. In particular, as the Federal Reserve strives to stimulate an economy rendered moribund by hyper-regulation, a population implosion, and the flight of capital, we are not seeing the effects of our hyper-debt, and probably will not see them until it is too late. Like the consumer taking advantage of all the credit card offers of “zero percent interest for 12 months” for transferring debts he has not the means to repay, we are living on cheaply borrowed time. Eventually the crazy offers are no longer enough. The debtor can no longer make the interest payments and must either declare bankruptcy or skip town—or, in the case of a nation-state, rev up the printing presses to steal money from its own citizens.
The congressional response is summed up in the endless whining of our political class concerning the dangers of a government shutdown should congressional leaders fail to pass the budget or blank-check debt ceiling suspensions demanded by Mr. Obama. That the Congress of the United States has allowed itself to be put into the position of potential “nay-sayer” to the president, when the Constitution specifically puts in congressional hands the power and responsibility to make laws, to set the spending priorities and appropriate the money to meet them, is a sign of that body’s willful abdication of its constitutional role in order to provide its members with lifelong sinecures.
Of perhaps greatest real concern in the twilight of our republic is the mind-numbingly selfish attitude of a people that sees only benefits to be accrued from government spending. The free-rider problem, according to which groups will seek special benefits for themselves from general funds paid for by all, combines with legislative log-rolling to produce bloated budgets as legislators strike deals paying off one constituency in exchange for colleagues’ ability to pay off others, with no sense of any maximum total pay-off. What is missing in this equation is the very minimal sense of limits and of duty to the common good that can and should cabin the pursuit of self-interest.
Selfishness is natural, of course. We all are self-interested. And this is not purely a matter of original sin—our intrinsically flawed nature. If I am to take care of myself, my family, and even my community, I have to look out for myself, for example not allowing people to cheat me out of money I need to take care of those who depend on me. What turns self-interest properly understood into childish selfishness is the lack of awareness of our duties, or our rejection of them. When it comes to the national debt, unfortunately, our duties are all too easy to dismiss. For these duties are owed to our ancestors and to our children.
We owe the duty to our ancestors not to squander the good things they bequeathed to us. In the case of our nation, these constitute our way of life, and include the financial stability, constitutional forms, and republican character that once characterized our government and people. Having chosen to hate our ancestors, decrying Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a mere rapist slave-holder and the Constitution itself as a pact among oppressors, too many among our intellectuals and high officers of government have freed themselves from any feelings of responsibility (or gratitude) for their inheritance. In this way they also have freed themselves from any felt duty to support habits of thrift, constitutional provisions of limited powers, or even limits on their ability to make the nation as a whole pay for their dreams of a “better world” in which health care, college tuition, and any number of other good things are paid for by, well, somebody else.
To the sense of ingratitude toward our ancestors we have added a sense of contempt for our children and our children’s children. Those we allow to be born we may treat as coddled pets. But we do so, not because it is best for them, but rather because we ourselves do not want to do the hard work of teaching them to be adults, to watch them be hurt, to suffer for their own mistakes, and learn that the world does not revolve around them or their emotions of the moment. And in protecting them from all things we saddle our children with the costs of paying for that protection, telling ourselves that we are building a “better world” by wasting billions on ideological fantasies of a burning world, on subsidies for things we happen to want, and for various programs doing for us what we should do and pay for ourselves.
This will not end well, and in the likely event that we are alive when the bill comes due for decades of profligate selfishness, our children finally will be right to blame us for their bad feelings—in particular the feelings of hunger and hopelessness bred by a nation in bankruptcy.
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