David Harsanyi: In reality, debt matters — a lot
By David Harsanyi March 17, 2013 7:46PM
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a sold out state Democratic election celebration party in Manchester, N.H., Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006. Obama was the guest speaker for more than 1,500 Democrats in the nation's earliest presidential primary state. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
Updated: April 19, 2013 6:27AM
No worries, America. Debt is a preoccupation of the fringe, a mere distraction for anyone interested in progress. And anyway, as President Barack Obama explained this week, “we don’t have an immediate crisis in terms of debt. In fact, for the next 10 years, it’s going to be in a sustainable place.”
That’s a pretty convenient position, wouldn’t you say, for a man who’s helped pile on trillions of dollars of new debt and created an entitlement that promises to escalate this non-crisis crisis of ours? Problem is that there are a few trillion things wrong with this contention.
The most obvious hitch is that neither this president—whatever we think of him or he thinks of himself—nor anyone else, even the best-intentioned economist or technocrat, can foresee what’s in store. Judging from our recent history—the wars, economic downturns, natural disasters, fake emergencies, bailouts, etc.—there will be plenty of new reasons to create debt we haven’t accounted for in our future.
And we may keep talking about $16 trillion of debt—bad enough—but the real number is unknown. Considering all the unfunded liabilities—things we have already promised and probably can’t pay for—it’s likely going to be a lot higher.
Then there are near-term political considerations. With the ideological divide in Washington, no one is going to come up with a consensus on reforming entitlements — the real driver of debt. (Then again, tepid bipartisan reform might be even worse.)
Right now, we’re spending more money to pay interest on debt than we’ll spend on education, homeland security, transportation and veterans’ benefits combined this year. Surely, there’s something better to spend that money on. And those interest payments are a significant tax on Americans—a debt tax that Washington doesn’t want to talk about. And just wait until interest rates rise, because at some point they will.
Hey, I didn’t even come up with the previous paragraph. I cribbed it from a speech given on the Senate floor in 2006 by an up-and-comer named Barack Obama. He’s so articulate I couldn’t resist. But those were the stormy days when debt mattered because Republicans were, well, Republicans.
Left-wing pundits act as if the presidential election was a referendum on all economic policy—forever—rather than a popularity contest that has much to do with cultural and very contemporary concerns. To even talk about cutting spending is to spit in the face of history’s advance. Well, things change, and if polls are to be believed, debt matters. Take nearly any poll that gauges the concerns of the public. For a long time now, jobs and the economy were leading the list, but second is almost always debt. Green energy, one of the administration’s big concerns, is not even close. Neither is gun control. Neither is more regulation. Neither is immigration. Neither is most of the Obama agenda.
Of course, debt isn’t always a bad idea. We build things for the next generation, and they should chip in, no doubt. But right now, public debt is more than 75 percent of gross domestic product. So when do we get to worry? At 100 percent? Demographics? Right now, most baby boomers are on the verge of retirement. But don’t worry.
It would be nice if some reporter asked the president what happened. Why did debt matter in 2006 but not now? Why in 2009 did the president promise to cut the deficit in half if it’s nothing to fret over?
He was right then, not now. And surely, even he can’t argue that our situation has improved. Actually, reality rarely holds him back.