In 2016 both major party candidates are capable of bouncing out of bounds. But I guarantee that there is one line neither Trump nor Clinton will dare to cross. For American politicians, serious discussion of the national debt is strictly off-limits.
”Serious discussion” means three things:
1. Admitting that a $20 trillion national debt is a problem.
2. Defining the problem as a threat to American sovereignty.
3. Proposing a policy plan to solve this existential problem.
We voters find it hard to acknowledge that the national debt is our debt, acquired in our name, but not really for the benefit of all.
It’s like waking up one morning to find that your identity has been stolen, your checking account looted, and a bunch of mortgages taken out in your name. Who bought what with my money?!
Today, every baby born in the USA enters the world owing more than $60,000. That’s each citizen’s share of the current national debt.
Almost none of our elected leaders ask us to question this. Candidates see no upside to making the debt a campaign issue. They see only this downside—that fixing the debt requires change and sacrifice. And what politician thinks offering sacrifice is good for a vote?
George W. Bush sold us the Iraq war by promoting the absence of sacrifice, offering us a guns and butter budget that dwarfed the one LBJ used to put both Vietnam and the Great Society on the country’s credit card.
Best, then, that the national debt remain their little $20 trillion secret.
The thing is, with the government now borrowing one of every seven dollars it spends, the debt piling up will crowd out investment and force interest rates up. The electorate will feel the pain. Soon.
Entitlements, the costliest spend, pile on more debt. To make matter worse, we borrow (at zero interest) from the Social Security Trust fund to help meet interest on the burgeoning debt. The money that should be making more money for Social Security just isn’t there. This can only hasten the coming funding crisis.
Yet more stupefying is the $5 trillion increase in the U.S. GDP since 2001. Sounds good, right? Until we note that the national debt rose $10 trillion during that same period. Since the beginning of current century, we’ve borrowed and spent $2 for every $1 we’ve earned.
So far, thanks to a widespread belief among both domestic and foreign investors that the full faith and credit of the United States makes buying our debt a very low risk, the Treasury has been able to keep the yield on its securities low.
Should the bough break and the nation default on its debt, the rest of the world will likely offer a bailout contingent on the surrender of some degree of our sovereignty to an international political body. Think Ireland, think Greece.
We will face imposed austerity and who knows what other foreign demands for national behavior modification.
By definition, terrorism is terrifying. But it isn’t an existential threat to American sovereignty. It’s not some “lone wolf” with a pressure cooker that will bring us down. But it is our own unwillingness to manage, much less eliminate, our national debt that very well could.
We are already mortgaging our children’s future. Should the debt we create today be our legacy?
Forcing our kids to pay for our spending is no way for adults to behave.
So isn’t it time that candidates start treating voters like adults by pulling back the curtain on the national debt and proposing plans for cutting spending and increasing revenue?
The politicians won’t do it on their own. We must demand from them a sustainable, responsible federal government.
In 2015, the government itself identified $140 billion of its expenditures of our money as “improper payments” and another $310 billion as “unauthorized spending.” Additional outlays resulting from unproductive spending and outdated programs, wasteful program duplication, unnecessary regulations, and exorbitant purchasing and compensation may exceed $1 trillion each year. This rotten fruit is low-hanging and should be plucked now.
We must, of course, go further. Our culture of entitlements will have to be transformed into a genuine social safety net, in which seriously means-tested programs provide only for the neediest among us.
And cuts aren’t enough. We must increase revenue. How? Begin with radical simplification of nearly 80,000 pages of tax code and case law to close loopholes, exemptions, and preferences.
Each reduction in our debt burden increases the odds of our continued sovereignty while also creating economic growth, greater prosperity, and increased—not diminished—opportunity for our children and grandchildren.
It begins the moment we demand from our lawmakers a plan to attack the debt. This means we all must embrace sacrifice. Those who unfairly benefit from mismanaged and unmanaged federal largesse will endure most of the pain because they are fully invested in the status quo, but each of us must shoulder a share of sacrifice when the status is no longer quo.
Is a call to self-sacrifice just too radical for us?
Actually, parents have been sacrificing for their children since the beginning of parents and children. And the idea of responsible, patriotic national fiscal stewardship is not new. For at least the first three-quarters of our existence as a nation, we managed to live within our means. Doing so is in our American DNA.
Alan Axelrod is author of "Full Faith and Credit: The National Debt, Taxes, Spending, and the Bankrupting of America" (Abbeville Press, September 27, 2016).