At the risk of being a terrible bore, today I return to the topic of the United States’ out-of-control spending and threatening debt. No less than five of the country’s most distinguished economic leaders sounded the alarm in The Post on Tuesday. Michael J. Boskin, John H. Cochrane, John F. Cogan, George P. Shultz and John B. Taylor warned in their Post Opinions essay, “A debt crisis is on the horizon,” that “even if economic growth continues uninterrupted, current tax and spending patterns imply that annual deficits will steadily increase, approaching the $1 trillion mark in two years and steadily rising thereafter as far as the eye can see.” Unfortunately, these distinguished gentlemen don’t use exclamation points or useful words and phrases such as “panic!” or “apocalypse!” or “the economic sky is falling!” or “America is heading off a cliff!” Similarly, Fred Hiatt wrote in The Post last month that the sheer volume of spending from Congress “imperils America.” Well, the fact is that the topic of the national debt traditionally has little connection to porn stars and Playboy Bunnies, and it doesn’t lead directly to President Trump’s immediate demise, so it fails to become an obsession with the media. But the reality of what Boskin, Hiatt and the others say could not be more clear or more serious. Just 10 years ago, our debt was $9.4 trillion. Today, it is $21 trillion. Of that, more than $15 trillion is held by the public. And according to the experts, the public’s debt burden could quickly rise to $20 trillion in just five years. If that happens and interest rates rise to 5 percent —1.5 percentage points higher than that which the Trump administration predicts — the aforementioned economists say “the interest cost alone on the projected $20 trillion of public debt would total $1 trillion per year.” That is more than America’s current $654 billion defense budget.
Our political process is failing us. Even worse, it is failing our kids. We are digging a financial hole that they will have to live in. We cannot borrow our way to prosperity. Debt makes us weaker, not stronger. It is our perceived strength that makes others like China choose to lend us money. But the more debt we accumulate, the weaker we become. The debt that we offer looks less secure and will likely cost more. This problem will spiral out of control. There will be a crash. Still, few are even talking about it.
No one in politics wants to campaign seriously on the debt. Every candidate and both parties have benign talking points that they can point to in case they are ever accosted by a serious voter — but the debt is a downer politically. The pros know that serious candidates should avoid the subject lest they be accused of actually opposing some spending program. There is no public appetite for someone who wants to truly spend less. And from the voter’s perspective, it seems that our leaders have been crying wolf. After all, hasn’t somebody or another been saying that the end is near for the past 30 years? And yet, here we are.
With that said, the central problem lies in the fact that a lot of voters are addicted to the very programs we need to cut or at least curtail their rates of growth. Voters want what they have been given, and they have come to accept the overspending as someone else’s fault. There is often a sentiment that “Well, I know there is a problem, but if so-and-so is getting theirs from the federal treasury, I might as well get mine too.” So our problems get worse, our debt gets deeper, and our economic foundation develops more cracks.
In the age of Stormy Daniels, Playboy Bunnies and an endless quest in search of connections between Trump and Russia, not many in the media want to be the buzzkill that brings up old-fashioned problems and discuss the ratings-killing national debt. Our politics has reached a new level of shallowness, immaturity and willful neglect. We will suffer the consequences.