“Estimates of total federal indebtedness vary according to the time frame one adopts and various assumptions about the future, but whether the actual figure is nearer $75 trillion or $221 trillion (economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s tally) the true federal debt is multiples of our GNP—an incomprehensibly high figure that can never be paid in full.
“The practice of spending today while asking future generations to pay for it was deemed immoral by earlier generations of Americans. [President] Jefferson spoke for the majority when he described federal debt as ‘swindling futurity’ and a mortal threat to liberty.” Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson, FrontPageMagazine, May 16, 2013
A trillion dollars is a LOT of money. Stacking hundred-dollar bills flat on top of each other, a forty-inch stack would be one million, a stack one-and-one-half times as tall as the Empire State Building would be a million, which a stack 631 miles high (from Pittsburgh to the other side of St. Louis) would be a trillion. That’s just one trillion. The national debt is approaching $17 trillion.
That is the official total. However, that figure greatly understates the problem by not counting unfunded liabilities. During the previous two fiscal years, the government added $2.6 trillion to the nominal national debt, but using GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) the actual tally was over $10 trillion of new debt.
Estimates of total federal indebtedness vary according to the time frame one adopts and various assumptions about the future, but whether the actual figure is nearer $75 trillion of $221 trillion (economist Laurence Kotlikoff’s tally) the true federal debt is multiples of our GNP—an incomprehensibly high figure that can never be paid in full.
Contrary to Democratic protestations, our debt problem is essentially a spending problem. Look at this graph from the Federal Reserve:
The blue line is revenue and the red line is federal spending since the late 1940s. Uncle Sam clearly has not been starved for revenues, but it has proven impossible to keep up with the breakaway explosion in spending.
The crux of the spending problem is in the area of entitlements. Exhibit A: Federal revenues and budget requests (i.e., expenditures) for Fiscal Year 2011. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt totaled over $2.4 trillion versus that year’s total federal revenue of $2.3 trillion. Conclusion? What we usually think of as “the government”—the various departments, agencies, and bureaus—was financed entirely by borrowed money.
To add insult to injury, despite all the red ink, federal profligacy has continued. Absurd spending programs abound—everything from a $750,970 grant to a successful brewery, to $2 million for ten cupcake shops, to $150 million to study lesbian obesity. Program redundancy is epidemical—82 federal programs to improve the quality of teaching, 47 for jobs training, 160 to support housing, 53 to spur entrepreneurship, at least 116 financial regulatory bodies, and 56 programs to teach financial literacy (obviously not working, since we keep digging ourselves deeper into debt).
How did we get into such a mess? Here are three key reasons:
- The moral poison in our society that has caused us to find justifications to redistribute property. Americans who would never consider entering a neighbor’s house and taking some of his property think nothing of consuming some of their neighbors’ wealth if the government takes it on their behalf.
- The progressive ideology which transformed our concept of government from negative to positive law—that is, altering the primary function of government from trying to keep bad things, like violence or theft, from happening to us (negative) to actively trying to do things for us (positive). The problems with this are twofold: first, the government can’t give anything to anybody without first taking it from somebody else; second, once you decide that government should do “A” for Jones (say, help with his food) then why not “”B,” “C,” “D,” etc. (help with housing, medical care, retirement, ad infinitum with no logical stopping point); also, if you help out Jones, why not Schmidt, Gonzalez, Miller, and so on? In other words, progressivism is an ideology for the never-ending expansion of government spending.
- The perverse incentives of democracy, which impel politicians to gain popularity by conferring benefits while avoiding the negative backlash that results from raising taxes. Eventually, democratic pressures cause politicians to shift the burden of their grandiose spending plans onto those who are in no position to penalize them at the ballot box—Americans who aren’t yet voters, either by being too young or not yet having been born.
To repeat: The massive federal debt never will be paid. One reason is the simple economics of debt: The more debt there is in a society, the more current income is needed to service the debt rather than to produce new wealth. The marginal productivity of debt (that is, the amount of new wealth produced per dollar of new debt added) has been declining in the U.S. for half a century. During the 2008-9 financial crisis, it fell below zero. Whatever the figure is now, we simply aren’t able to get much bang for our additional debt bucks, sort of like a junkie in the advanced stages of addiction.
There is a more ominous reason why the younger generation will find it impossible to honor Uncle Sam’s extravagant promises: Already young people burdened with college debt are delaying marriage and having children. These trends will accelerate when future congresses raise taxes to try to fulfill its entitlement promises. The result will be a population implosion. That will further increase the per-person debt burden, generating a vicious cycle that will culminate in economic cataclysm and political volatility. The unaffordable spending spree of the last generation has created an existential threat to America itself. Without realizing it, we have been voting for a coming implosion of our population and the concomitant destruction of our own society.
The practice of spending today while asking future generations to pay for it was deemed immoral by earlier generations of Americans. Jefferson spoke for the majority when he described federal debt as “swindling futurity” and a mortal threat to liberty. If generations could shift the burden of their debts to future generations, said Jefferson, “then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation.”
Jefferson asserted that no nation “can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19 years.” By what abstruse calculations he arrived at the term of “19 years,” I have no idea. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the jubilee principle stated, “At the end of every seven years you must declare a cancellation of debts” (Deut. 15:1, NET Bible © 2006). Today, as we drown in debt and the rising generation faces the prospect of being debt slaves, it is clear that we wouldn’t be in such a woeful fiscal hole if we had adhered to the principle articulated by Jefferson and the ancient Hebrews.
So, what can the younger generation do? At some point, they will have no choice but to repudiate the national debt. That may sound radical, but even if they don’t act to repudiate the debt openly, you can bet your bottom Federal Reserve Note that the central bank will repudiate much of our debt via the subterfuge of monetary depreciation.
Our younger generations would be justified in repudiating the debt. The heavy taxes they will be asked to pay for today’s deficit spending are unjust. They amount to taxation without representation. The younger generations are not contractually bound to honor federal debt. There was no quid pro quo—they didn’t receive the benefits of the federal largess that they are expected to pay for. Not only would they be justified in taking such drastic actions, they need to do so in order to have a chance to rescue themselves and the future of America itself from the above-mentioned potentially fatal population implosion.
What form may this repudiation take? At some point, when enough of them recognize the untenable position into which their elders have placed them, the younger generations will need to coalesce around a debt-cancelling political agenda. This agenda would consist of two parts: 1) paying off federal bondholders, foreign and domestic, at X cents on the dollar (perhaps using the immense inventory of real property that Uncle Sam owes in settlement of debts); 2) dismantling the pay-as-you-go format of federal entitlements and replacing them with accounts in each individual’s name (with their contributions making no detours into the federal Treasury)—a policy based on the time-tested principles of private property and voluntary cooperation rather than on compulsory participation in programs predicated on collectivized risk.
The second step is absolutely indispensable for both practical and moral reasons. To wipe out the existing debt, but then continue the bankrupt policies of using government to confer financial privileges and redistribute wealth would simply place their own children into the same abyss of debt from which they themselves had escaped, and to lay claim to the same benefits that liquidation of the national debt would deny to older Americans. Repudiation of the debt without abandoning the corrupt politics of the transfer society would be morally indefensible.
In short, the national debt, as destructive as it is and as badly as we need to eliminate it, is only the symptom. The actual disease is the modern democratic redistributionist state that grants favors, privileges, and benefits to some citizens paid for by others. We will reap the bitter fruits of what we are now sowing.
Mark Hendrickson teaches economics at Grove City College. He writes the “No Panaceas” blog at Forbes.com and is a contributing editor of the St. Croix Review. Hendrickson’s most recent book is “God and Man on Wall Street: The Conscience of Capitalism” with Craig Columbus.