America's humiliating debt

Why are voters so enraged about unsustainable federal spending? Partly because it diminishes our status as a nation.

Posted: October 14, 2010

By Victor Davis Hanson

We will learn in November just how angry the public is about a lot of things, from higher taxes to massive unemployment.

But the popular uproar pales in comparison to the sense of humiliation over the fact that we are quite broke. In 2008, the public was furious at George W. Bush not because he was too much of a right-wing tightwad, but because he ran up a series of what were then thought to be gargantuan deficits. The result was that under a supposedly conservative administration and small-government Republican Congress, the deficit nearly doubled, from $3.3 trillion to $6.3 trillion, in just eight years.

President Obama apparently never figured out that he had been elected in part because that massive Republican borrowing had sickened the American people. So he took Bush's last scheduled budget deficit of more than $500 billion and - in a Keynesian attempt to get the country out of the 2008 recession and financial panic - nearly tripled it.

Obama's red ink will add more than $2.5 trillion to the national debt - with near-trillion-dollar yearly deficits scheduled for the next decade. All of that will result in a U.S. debt of more than $20 trillion.

What exactly is it about big deficits and our accumulated debt that is starting to enrage voters?

First, the public is tired of the nonchalant way smarmy public officials take credit for dishing out someone else's cash without a thought about paying for it. Each week, Obama promises another interest group more freshly borrowed billions, now euphemistically called "stimulus." But the more public money he hands out to states, public employees, the unemployed, or green industry, the more voters wonder where in the world he's getting the cash. The next time a public official puts his name on yet another earmarked federal project, let him at least confess whether it was floated with borrowed money.

Second, there is a growing sense that even vastly increased income taxes cannot cover the colossal shortfalls. At least the old Clinton tax rates balanced the budget. But should we bring them back, we would still run a deficit of more than $1 trillion in 2011, given vast increases in federal spending.

That bleak reality creates hopelessness - and anger - among voters, who feel they are being taken for fools by their elected officials. The public opposes tax hikes not because they don't wish to pay down the debt, but because they suspect the increased revenue will simply be a green light for even greater deficit spending.

Third, it does no good for Beltway technocrats to explain how deficits are good at "stimulating" the economy, or why they do not really have to be paid back. Voters know that such gibberish does not apply to their own mortgages and credit card bills.

Voters feel relieved when they can pay off debt, and they become chronically depressed when they cannot. When the government last balanced the budget in 2000, under the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress, the country collectively experienced as much of a psychological high as it is now experiencing humiliation over being a spendthrift borrower.

So national reputation and sense of self matter. Americans are tired of hearing about inevitable Chinese ascendancy and American decline. They know China is still in many ways a repressive developing country facing huge political, environmental, and demographic challenges. But Americans also concede that China's huge budget and trade surpluses result in trillions of dollars in cash reserves - and hence global clout, world respect, and a promising future. That does not seem true of spend-now-pay-later America.

Fourth, there is real fear that something terrible will soon come of this unsustainable level of spending. Interest rates are at historic lows. But if they should rise, just servicing the current debt would cost even more hundreds of billions of borrowed dollars. Soon, we will face a bleak choice of slashing either national defense or Social Security - or both - just when the nation is graying and the world is becoming more dangerous. Will the Chinese lend us the money to deploy an aircraft carrier off their coast, or finance new American health-care entitlements that they cannot afford for 400 million of their own people?

In this coming election, all the old political pluses - years of incumbency, entrenched seniority, and pork-barrel earmarks - are proving to be liabilities. Instead, the more public officials admit to being in control when trillions of dollars of debt were run up, the more Americans want them gone.

We are humiliated by what we owe. If we cannot pay it back, we will at least want political payback.


Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at Stanford's Hoover Institution. He can be reached at author@victorhanson.com. This was distributed by Tribune Media Services.

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