In 2000, the National Debt Clock displayed the nation’s $5.6 trillion debt from a building near the corner of 42nd Street and 6th Avenue in New York. The debt has since swollen to about $28 trillion and continues to rise.

President Joe Biden’s new stimulus bill, the American Rescue Plan Act, will cost the nation roughly $1.9 trillion. And Biden’s new infrastructure bill will probably cost in the neighborhood of $2 trillion (or more). I can’t even comprehend how much money that is. But it’s a lot. And this is happening at a time when the national debt has exceeded $28 trillion.

We don’t talk about the national debt too much these days, but we should. The future of the country demands it.

When the national debt clock was created in 1989, the country was $2.9 trillion in debt. In 2008, American Banker reporter Hannah Lang pointed out recently, the clock ran out of digits and more had to be added to keep up with the debt. Can it just keep going up without any consequences for the nation?

Republicans expressed deep concerns about Biden’s stimulus bill, but they have contributed significantly to the debt when they have been in the majority, so one has to question their sincerity. And Democrats have expressed deep concerns about the debt, but only when they have been in the minority. I would suggest that they are both right, but only when others are spending the money. Republicans almost always think that tax cuts will stimulate the economy, and they sometimes do. But more often than not, they contribute to the debt. Democrats almost always think that social assistance and infrastructure spending will stimulate the economy, and they sometimes do. But … well, you know.

Some debt can be good for a country, in the same way that it can be good for an individual. We can build our credit and our borrowing power. But there is a significant difference between national debt and individual debt: The nation can print new money, and individuals can’t — at least not legally. Different schools of economics have different views of government deficits and debt. But debt does matter. And the amount of debt when seen in proportion to the overall strength of the economy is especially revealing. In 2020, the national debt exceeded the nation’s yearly gross domestic product. And the projections are for it to be at 136% of GDP by 2025. We can’t ignore this.

Our debt is primarily defined by Treasury securities held by other countries and the interest we pay on these securities (the servicing of our debt). These securities are popular with buyers and have value because of the faith that the world has in the American economy, which is still one of the strongest in the world. But if countries lose faith in the United States and the dollar, we could face serious problems.

What is the likely effect of continuing, massive debt? Some have developed doomsday scenarios that are quite frightening, and it makes sense to listen to all opinions about debt. But it is more likely that the debt will, in the long run, slow down the economy or produce inflation that could rise to dangerous levels. This is not the stuff of horror movies, but it could undermine our economy and dramatically lower the quality of life for everyone.

What can be done? The top expenses for the government are Medicare, Medicaid, health care, Social Security and defense. All of these are important, but something must be done about them if we are to get deficit spending under control and lower the debt. The problem is that voters don’t want these programs cut. In theory, everyone would like to see the debt reduced, but when it comes down to specific proposals, voters oppose them if they believe they will be directly affected. And politicians who support cuts in popular programs can expect voters to turn their backs on them in the next election.

What we need is politicians with courage. We need politicians of both parties who are willing to collaborate with one another to tackle tough problems without concern for their own jobs. More than that, we need politicians who don’t think of politics as a career.

How likely is it that we will find politicians like this? Not very likely, but I still hope that we will. And until we have politicians who are more concerned with doing the right thing for the long-term future than doing what is good for them, the debt will grow and the danger to the country will grow with it.

Solomon D. Stevens of Ladson received his doctorate in political science from Boston College. His two books are “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East” and “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored).

  • Mar 28, 2021

The Post and Courier