Every politician learns the same lesson when they enter office: You win re-election by handing out candy—not by taking it away. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that public officials are often disconcertingly disconnected from the notion that government obligations must match available—and projected—means. After all, the thinking seems to go, why save for tomorrow what you can spend today?
We are now faced with a foundational problem that is going to transform every aspect of our daily lives: all levels of government—local, state, and federal—owe everybody money but have no way to pay beyond more and more borrowing that will only serve to put us even deeper in the hole. For example, over only the last 30 years or so our accumulated Federal debt has skyrocketed from $1 trillion to $18 trillion dollars. This amount is exclusive of all the debt we have piled on at the state and local levels, and it does not include bills now coming due for the vast underfunding of our pension systems and national infrastructure during this same period.
All this wonderful deficit spending on a scale unprecedented in human history also, of course, begs a more basic question about the underlying economic premise that government spending creates jobs and wealth: If robust government spending is indeed essential to economic growth, how can it be possible that, by many standard measures of national well-being, we are so much worse off than before this incredible spending binge started roughly 30 years ago? Should we not now be living in a Keynesian utopia of comfort and ease because massive government spending has stimulated an economic nirvana where we all own three mansions and every child is born a millionaire?
There is no doubt that our massive deficit spending has produced some winners—at least temporarily—by spreading cash around and facilitating a reservoir of ready credit. However, it can be argued that this deficit-induced credit tsunami has led to a massive case of “follow the bouncing bubble” that has caused so many of our financial difficulties by creating artificially inflated booms followed by devastating busts.
We obviously need to work toward a consensus regarding how we are to begin to wriggle out of the debt trap that we are now in, but it is nearly impossible to do so when the spirit of shared sacrifice for the common good is nearly moribund. Perhaps we should not be surprised by our “What’s in it for me?” culture because we have, after all, celebrated every form of self-centeredness and selfishness in our public and private lives for many decades. If we are to have a reasoned debate about the proper scope and cost of government, we need to be less obsessed with what we have a “right” to expect and re-focus on our individual and collective responsibilities. If not, the government agencies and their programs that we created to keep us safe will pauperize us all.