Fearing America's national debt

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If you are anything like me, there are some words and ideas that cause immediate glaze and trance: hermeneutics, tax code, parliamentary procedure, Thomas Aquinas, and Patrick White, for example.

But the greatest of these doze-inducers are the magic words The National Debt. I have seen people at a dinner table plop their faces into their pastas when these words are uttered; I have seen savage dogs instantly rendered insensate; I have whispered brawling children to sleep by briefly examining the national debt and its implications.

Yet this morning I inflict the words debt and deficit upon you, because even I, a simpleton in economic and financial matters, have begun to be quietly terrified and angry about my country's financial status, and not for political reasons as much as parental.

Of late I begin to think my country is stealing nakedly from its children, beggaring its grandchildren, and essentially selling what was one of the greatest national ideas in human history to China.

An unnerving state of affairs.

Here are some handles on it. The United States' national debt — the money we owe — is $14 trillion, the biggest outstanding bill in American history. Our biggest creditor is China. My personal share of that debt, were we to pawn it off on each citizen of any age and stage, is $46,000, far more than half my annual income. The budget deficit — the hole between income and outgo — is $1.5 trillion.

The proposal being debated in my national capitol, the one that probably will pass into law, will allow us to borrow more money, so that our deficit will creep past $1.5 trillion, even as we raise a few taxes, cut an enormous number of public services, hope desperately for a business boom, and blame each other for the mess in ever more vituperative terms.

It's a crazy number, 1.5 trillion — 1,500,000,000,000; pinball numbers, as we say in the States. And how very easy it is to ignore the matter, hope it will all work out, trust our elected representatives to right the ship, entertain the idea of learning Chinese, and trundle along trying to manage the smaller unwieldy corporation that is the family unit, with its two minor incomes, vast mortgage, and economically useless teenagers, not to mention the dog, who has never earned a penny as yet.

But I cannot do that, because the cold logic of it all is clear to me. When I borrow more than I earn, I am in deficit. I have debt, or debt has me. If I borrow more to address the deficit, I have more debt. Eventually I can borrow no more. Yet debt still has me, and a huge debt, too.

Unless something miraculous happens, soon I have no house, no car, a lien on my earnings the rest of my life, no money for the kids to go to college, no money for when I am old and broken, and the hope only that I can lean on friends, family, and government for support, or write a novel so lewd and foolish that it is instantly made into a major feature film.

But imagine it is the government itself drowning in debt. If one country owes another a vast amount of money, can the first threaten the second with force if the second, for example, invades its neighbors? If you have no money as a nation, how do you pay your soldiers and sailors and airmen? How do you invest in education to foment creativity to spark new and lucrative businesses? How do you clean your air and water for your children? How do you come to the aid of your allies, like, say, Australia, if China decides to suddenly nationalise Australia's mining industry?

And how would a dad, wide awake in the nether reaches of the night, explain to his children that they are saddled with national liens on their earnings for the next 50 years, and that probably they will not want to have many or any children themselves, for children in the future may be useful mostly as tax production units, paying off the debt incurred in the opening years of the 21st century?

The essential idea at the heart of the American experiment, both when it started and unto today, is that you are free to do what you please, within the bounds of civility and safety.

For all that we argue constantly about what this means, for all that we fought against the imperial, fascist, and communist powers that would happily have kept or placed us in thrall, for all our fears of a murderous Yemeni thug and his fellow conspirators who would foment a war between East and West, it seems to me that America now teeters on the edge of a darker future than we have imagined since Hitler's fever dreams of an Aryan world served by slaves of every color and creed.

We cannot continue in this fashion, or we will enslave our own children and grandchildren to ruinous debt for the terms of their natural lives; we will twist their lives in unimaginable ways, because we would not pay our bills or reduce the airy luxury with which we lived.

We talk freely about personal sins; we quietly consider the Germans to have collectively committed a national sin in the last century, at least of omission; how sad that America might be remembered as the nation to have committed a sin of commission against its own beloved children.


Brian DoyleBrian Doyle is the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland. 

Topic tags: Brian Doyle, US deficit, national debt, china, 1.5 trillion

 

 

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Existing comments

The United States has been a trend-setter in many ways, not always good, and the current difficulty is an example of the atrocious, resulting from the excessive power of the very rich.

Anyone wishing to really understand what has been happening should read the comments of Professor Robert Reich.

And we should all recognise the evil of the widely accepted, is not spoken, doctrine that 'Greed is good'.
Bob Corcoran | 27 July 2011


Brian Doyle personalises the problem of the American debt crisis very well.
Bob Corcoran has enunciated one cause - the excessive power of the very rich.
And its underlying ethic - Greed is good.
What I want to read about are - solutions. Not sticking one's finger in the hole in the dyke solutions but a solution based on a fearless moral inventory of what went long.

Are there men and women in America capable of taking this inventory? Yes. America has some of the best economists and social scientists in the world.
Will they be listened to?
Ah, there's the rub!
Uncle Pat | 27 July 2011


The shame of this debt is not the current deficit - indeed governments should be spending more on infrastructure in times of economic contraction, when there is spare capacity in the economy. The shame and the tragedy lies in the fact that the bulk of this debt was accumulated in times of economic prosperity, when the country should have been saving for a rainy day.

Clearly, as the economy begins to repair, something needs to be done, and who pays for it depends on how it is paid down. There will be some fat to cut, but that won't go very far to addressing such a huge deficit, which leaves gutting programs, or raising taxes (lets face it, defence will never be considered). Raising taxes now means that it is you, and not your children that will be asked to make the biggest contribution. Most of us carry a good deal more than $46,000 in personal debt, and we budget to pay that off in our lifetime - a little painful perhaps, but possible. It is through the inevitable cuts to social security, health, and particularly education programs that your children and your children''s children will end up paying.
Tim Goodwill | 27 July 2011


Hubris...that sense of entitlement to what i have and cam take...that makes me more worthy than those who have not or do not....fear of being humanly equal with that non-other...the unenlightened eye that cannot or will not see the destructiveness of it's own behaviour.......breath-taking.....It's the sort of arrogance that brought into being the Russian revolution (among others).
hilary | 27 July 2011


The shame of this debt is not the current deficit - indeed governments should be spending more on infrastructure in times of economic contraction, when there is spare capacity in the economy. The shame and the tragedy lies in the fact that the bulk of this debt was accumulated in times of economic prosperity, when the country should have been saving for a rainy day.

Clearly, as the economy begins to repair, something needs to be done, and who pays for it depends on how it is paid down. There will be some fat to cut, but that won't go very far to addressing such a huge deficit, which leaves gutting programs, or raising taxes (lets face it, defence will never be considered). Raising taxes now means that it is you, and not your children that will be asked to make the biggest contribution. Most of us carry a good deal more than $46,000 in personal debt, and we budget to pay that off in our lifetime - a little painful perhaps, but possible. It is through the inevitable cuts to social security, health, and particularly education programs that your children and your children''s children will end up paying.
T Goodwill | 27 July 2011


Is that really true? For decades now, the US Govt. has been "printing" greenbacks out of thin air to fund American spending (military, entitlements, etc.), AND yet the American dollar remains the most prevalent reserve currency in the world. Just for argument's sakes (leaving out the question of whether it is the right thing to do), WHAT is to prevent the Federal government from granting a tax credit and basically tearing up say $3 Trillion in "debts" owed to the Feds? Then Congress can spend an extra $3T without violating that "debt limit". WHY would that not work? There is still NOTHING on the horizon to replace the American dollar as the reserve currency - and if a credible threat comes up, America can always send in the military to undo that possibility.

Not arguing the propriety of it - but why wouldn't that work to buy America another couple of decades of prosperity and growth?
Zhuubaajie | 27 July 2011


There is little ground for a country to complain about the chickens coming home to roost when that country kills thousands of its children each year. The culture of death is not simply a phrase; it is a plague.
Gabriel Austin | 28 July 2011


Brian, you do not get it. Your debt and all your trade is in your own currency and you own the printing press!! A mixture of printing as many dollars as you need and modest inflation is all you need. The real problem is with those who own the debt! And the same countries (mainly China) need the USA to keep buying their goods or they go bust.... you are home free , mate...
Eugene | 28 July 2011


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