government debt“We should be grateful we don’t get all the government we pay for” someone remarked to me at a local Republican strategy conference earlier this year. The hard coastal rain combined with the flat tire on my rental car awaiting me in the parking lot had dampened my spirits, so I didn’t have the energy to reply.

A couple months prior, a local Democrat state legislator said “that’s ridiculous” when I mentioned the country’s $60 trillion in debt and unfunded liabilities for Medicare, Social Security, and government pensions. She really had no clue. 

The disconnect from reality is on both sides of the aisle, and it’s profound. The great danger in my profession is to assume that the average citizen knows and understands the issues that we policy folk take for granted, and it’s an assumption that appears in small ways—like reading a story from the morning newspaper and knowing how to read between the lines of the reporting or knowing the back-story, and without even thinking about it, believing that the typical newspaper reader digested the story in the same way and came to the same conclusions.

From my perch atop one of the numerous state-based public policy think tanks that dot the political landscape, the view is increasingly grim. The growing realization that neither political party is truly capable of dealing with the U.S.’s fiscal cancer has been the major impetus in my drift from the “Republican” to “None of the above” category (when I grudgingly joined Facebook I listed my political views as “probably not yours.” It’s vague enough to describe my frustration with the whole sad game right now, and being a Hillsdale graduate on the Left Coast, it seems to fit).

As the culture deteriorates, the discussion increasingly focuses on policy. Left and Right obsess with recommendations, plans, agendas, reforms, platforms, talking points, strategies, and all of it ad nauseam. Politics is in permanent campaign mode so actual governing rarely occurs. This is only slightly less true at the state level.

Many civic-minded folks are, I suspect, lulled into a false sense of security at the state level because most states (including my own) require balanced budgets, so general operations can’t be funded by borrowing. But general operating budgets are only a fraction of state spending. Health care entitlements, transportation, and education programs come with lavish federal infusions, which are growing thanks to foreign creditors and auto-pilot policy decisions. The time is not far off when state policy making, once an integral aspect of a vibrant federalist system, is little more than a conduit for federal funds.

Government debt is a cancer that metastasizes throughout the body politic, and so the federal addiction to debt impacts states in a big way, especially in an era when state legislatures use federal “bailout” money to maintain spending levels that their own revenue streams can’t support. I have grown so very tired of hearing my own governor tell reporters “you know, we can’t print or borrow money” as she tries to justify this or that policy decision. It’s true our state can’t, but it does rely on vast amounts of money from an entity that both prints and borrows astronomical sums.

A couple years back I met a wonk’s wonk, the Hon. David M. Walker. Walker had recently stepped down as Comptroller General of the U.S. and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It’s not a sexy, high-profile position. Its work is, in a sense, the stuff yawns are made of. You could say the GAO counts the beans of the bean counters.

President Clinton appointed Walker to run the GAO in 1998. Stepping down, he claimed, would give him the leeway to bring more attention to the U.S.’s growing debt load. Serving as Comptroller General gave Walker a unique insight into the nation’s finances, and what he saw over the years troubled him deeply. That Congress continued to ignore the problem troubled him even more.

Someone once said economists are like accountants but without all the personality. Walker comes across as both at times. Not a charismatic speaker by any means, he does speak with an authority that focuses your attention on the sobering reality he communicates. He comes across as an impeccably honest, no-nonsense man—the sort you meet and think to yourself “I’ll bet his yard is kept absolutely flawless.”

After Walker left the GAO, he signed on with the Peter G. Peterson Foundation (oh the great names that the non-profit world churns out) as President and CEO. He now serves as its senior advisor. The Foundation has taken a leadership role in promoting greater public awareness of the long-term financial challenges plaguing the nation.

Accountants and lawyers love using complicated terms for simple concepts. I’m convinced it is they, rather than the Masons or Illuminati, who conspire to re-make society. Every quarter my organization’s bookkeeper gives me a print-out detailing how much I’ve spent from my annual budget at that point, and it’s filled with more jargon than an IRS form. When I finally do discover how much I’ve spent that year, I’m quick to mark it with a highlighter so I don’t have to go through the gymnastics again. So when I started flipping through the pages of “The State of the Union’s Finances,” an annual report from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, I was not surprised to find more fun terms there. My favorite was “Major Fiscal Exposures.” Translated, that’s “a measure (in present value) of federal liabilities, commitments, contingencies, and unfunded promises, which, under current law, will cost the government at a future date.” I’ve read more white papers than I care to admit, but this report struck me immediately.

As I write, in October 2010, the total value of all debt and unfunded promises made by the U.S. government is $61.9 trillion over the next 75 years. $45.8 trillion of that belongs solely to promised Social Security and Medicare benefits. The rest is comprised of publicly-held debt, military and civilian employee pension payments and retiree health benefits, and government guarantees of private pension plans. Each American’s piece of that lovely cake is more than $200,000.

Yeah, that’s bad. And it’s not getting any better. The current national debt $13 trillion, nearly half of which is owned by foreign creditors. In 2008 50% of the federal budget was spent on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and net interest. Under current conditions, by 2050 the federal debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product will be 350%.

The second time I heard David Walker speak, I approached him afterwards and asked if he was working on ways to make the implications of the nation’s debt real to the everyday citizen who tends to be more concerned with checking out the latest iPhone app or watching one of the dozen ESPN channels than he does the nation’s finances. I’ve been messaging public policy long enough to know that you can’t make it stick in people’s minds unless you make it real to them, somehow.

I suggested to Walker he needed to make the problem real for people by painting a picture of what specifically will happen in their lives if the debt problem continues unchecked. He didn’t seem too interested. Maybe because he doesn’t know what will really happen. In graduate school they told us historians make terrible prophets. Perhaps accountants and economists are even lousier at predicting the future. But Walker, like many in my industry, has faith in the notion that people will make the right decisions if properly educated.

Ultimately, Walker’s message doesn’t resonate with people on a broad scale (at least not broad enough to translate into political action) because it just doesn’t register with them. The nation’s debt is a far-off, distant problem that doesn’t really impact *me* in the here and now, so why should I be concerned? As long as the entertainment-industrial complex keeps cranking out episodes of Lost and American Idol, life is good.

“We should avoid ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden we ourselves ought to bear” is a George Washington quote Walker utters frequently. The wisdom of a generation that knew too well the dangers of Leviathan government is lost on most people today.

Richard A. Posner, in a recent Foreign Policy article, made a rather unsettling observation:

The adjustments that will be needed—if the economy does not outgrow an increasing burden of debt—to maintain the U.S. economic position in the world may be especially painful and difficult because of features of the American political scene that suggest that the country might be becoming in important respects ungovernable. The perfection of interest-group politics has brought about a situation in which, to exaggerate just a bit, taxes can’t be increased, spending programs can’t be cut, and new spending is irresistible.

It was the word “ungovernable” that struck me most. It reminded me of an equally disturbing headline I saw floating around the news world a few months ago: “Is California the First Failed State?” (linked here to NPR but seen many places elsewhere).

“Ungovernable”? “Failed state”? These are terms we hear associated with countries in Latin America, Africa, or the sub-equatorial Far East. It can’t happen here in America. Or can it? We get all the government we pay for, and more. We are saddled with all the government we can borrow. But at some point the lending will stop, or will come at a price we cannot afford to pay, and the consequences in our lives will be severe. Until David Walker et al. strive to make this notion real in people’s lives, their warnings will continue to fall on deaf ears.

Regrettably, a technocratic myopia pervades the “idea factories” to which many on the Right turn for solutions to our nation’s woes. In those endless rows of well-lit cubicles, offices, and conference rooms, the answers are always simple: If we change this law, re-jigger this provision of that program, or create some new statutory “safeguard,” we’ll fix the problem. But the solutions aren’t so simple. It is the culture that must change, which means it is individual people who must change. It can be spurred by strong, virtuous leadership, but it can’t be legislated from the throne.

“Is it conceivable,” Russell Kirk asked, “that American civilization, and in general what we call ‘Western Civilization,’ may recover from the Time of Troubles…and in the twenty-first century enter upon an Augustan age of peace and restored order?” The question was weighty enough to give him pause when he posed it in 1992. How much farther have we slipped into darkness 20 years later? Yet we cannot believe that anything is inevitable, least of all our downfall. But even as he raises the question, Kirk joins Edmund Burke in reminding us that history is replete with turning points, many of which came under the least likely of circumstances.

And so, as grim as the course of events may seem, there is hope. There is always hope.

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