The accumulated U.S. debt recently breached the $20 trillion mark. Those who have remained concerned over the debt have viewed that coming milestone with alarm over the past many months. Now that it has been reached, there’s nary a mention of it from the national media.
Once upon a time, the national media recognized the dangers involved in the U.S. accumulating too much debt. I can recall major magazine articles and network nightly news broadcasts addressing the growing debt and deficits as early as the 1970’s. At the end of the 70’s, the U.S. accumulated debt had not yet surpassed $900 billion. We crossed the $1 trillion threshold in late 1981. It took about 14 years to get to $5 trillion in the mid-90’s. After another 13 years we reached $10 trillion in 2008. It only took another 4 years or so to reach $15 trillion in early 2012. Now here we are, a mere 5 years later sitting at $20 trillion.
As a percentage of our gross national product (GDP), the accumulated debt maintained in the 30% to 40% range through the 1970’s and to about 1985. Since then, it hasn’t gone straight up, but the trend has been unmistakable. It crossed the 100% mark in late 2012. Since then it has ranged between 99% and 106%.
The national media has largely lost interest in the accumulated debt over the course of at least the past decade or so. It’s bad enough that it is failing to fulfill its roll in alerting the public to such an important public problem but there are many examples of the media actively working to dissuade the populace from any immediate concern over the debt. Many acknowledge that excessive debt can ultimately be a problem but argue or imply that there is a lengthy road ahead, down which the debt ‘can’ may be kicked for years or even decades before it becomes necessary to address in a serious fashion. This article suggest we have up to three decades before there will be a significant problem. This column in the NY Times suggests that the debt should be even larger than it is. Forbes ran this column in 2012 in which the author plays word games by arguing that there can be no ‘debt crisis’ in the U.S. because we can always print as many dollars as we need to pay our bills. He didn’t bother explaining what we should do about the ‘crashing dollar’ crisis and the economic catastrophe that will ensue if the ‘powers that be’ ever resort to overtly monetizing the debt in the manner he suggests.
This column, published just today, applauds the notion of a permanent removal of the debt ceiling because it would “wrench the job of raising the debt ceiling from the hands of Congress”. Why would that be a good thing? Because “(Raising the debt limit) should be a lawmaker’s duty, not a concession. Letting the United States go into default for any reason would destabilize the global economy, with disastrous results…”
A better example of a non sequitur can’t be found. The inference (that the U.S. will default on its obligations) does not flow from the premises (that Congress might choose not to raise the debt ceiling). This fallacy has been so widely used and oft repeated by politicians and the media it is unfortunately widely accepted. But in fact there is nothing about refraining from increasing the debt limit which necessitates a default on any government obligation. What it would necessitate is that the government make choices – that it decide how to spend its (now) limited funds. It could choose to default on obligations. But it could also choose to raise taxes or cut spending in order to come into balance. In no sense is a default inevitable or necessary in the event the government stops borrowing.
The broader public’s lack of interest or understanding regarding the debt is a problem which must be overcome if the debt is ever to be addressed. It empowers do-nothing politicians to continue borrowing as a tool to enhance their power and status and it discourages those politicians who might otherwise be willing to pick up the banner of fiscal responsibility and lead us out of the madness that will cripple future generations – generations who will rightfully look with disdain upon those who left them such a painful legacy. The media has an amplified voice capable of influencing society’s perspective and understanding with respect to the debt crisis. It should be using its megaphone as a force for good, inducing good citizenship and stewardship of our national fisc. Instead it is too often disinterested or worse, complicit in justifying our generational theft of our children’s future.