A government of drunken sailors

1 October 2021

3:50 PM

1 October 2021

3:50 PM

It seems strange, but just two decades ago the United States government had a balanced budget. Bill Clinton had run for president as a new type of Democrat, calling for an end to the deficits that had so bedeviled George H.W. Bush.

Thanks in large part to pressure from Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress, he pulled it off. Clinton trimmed military spending and signed into law a package of tax increases. This cued haunted house noises in the parlors of center-right think tanks, but Biden also approved more conservative-friendly measures like domestic spending cuts and welfare reform. This bipartisan approach, in conjunction with a galloping economy, led to the unthinkable: budget surpluses for four fiscal years in a row.

Such were the 1990s, baby, when champagne corks were flying and tech investors would dump $10 million into on a dare. Let’s return now to our own time, when the fiscal scene looks more like a nuclear winter crossed with a zombie apocalypse. Congress this year is set to run up a budget deficit of $3 trillion. The national debt, meanwhile, is about $2,881,600,000,000.00. And that isn’t even accurate. I left out a zero. But who can even tell anymore? And what’s a decimal place or two between generations treading red ink?

Into this overflowed fiscal pool has come crashing the cannonball of Joe Biden’s spending program. The centerpiece of the President’s domestic agenda is another $3.5 trillion bonanza, with all the usual Democratic goodies: universal pre-K, green initiatives, adding dental and vision to Medicare, free community college, child care. And then enter a separate package to rebuild America’s infrastructure, actual retail price, $1 trillion. And then bring on another $768 billion for a Defense Department that seems to believe the Cold War never ended.

When tallied up with other Biden proposals, the total tab comes to $6 trillion. That’s more than the United States spent on World War Two and Vietnam combined. It’s about seven times the cost of the New Deal and 10 times the cost of the moon landing. It’s enough to buy 30 Jeff Bezoses and launch them all into space on separate phallic-suggestive rockets. Let’s say Biden abruptly decided that America needed to become the world’s premier cat lady. With that much money, we could purchase 60 billion cats, enough to throw off the rest of the planet’s ecosystem.

This is insane. It’s an indictment on us as a nation. Yet along comes Joe Biden, looking every inch the Atlantic City loan shark, to claim that somehow the entire bender will be paid for, which should only prompt us to allot another billion for a White House laugh track. Per Democrats, the usual formula of ‘taxing the rich’ and hiking levies on smokers can provide. Even allowing that writing this column makes me want to stick four Marlboros in my mouth at once, the math there does seem a trifle fishy.

Meanwhile every light on our fiscal dashboard is flashing. Fitch’s agency might have awarded us a credit rating of AAA, but their outlook for our future is ‘negative’, a result, says Fitch’s, of ‘ongoing deterioration in the US public finances and the absence of a credible fiscal consolidation plan’. The Congressional Budget Office says that debt as a percentage of GDP is set to almost double by 2051, and warns of slowed growth, higher inflation, fiscal crisis. Actuaries predict that the Medicare trust fund will run dry in five years. And the interest we owe on our debt is snowballing, so much that it threatens to crowd out the rest of the federal budget.

This spree has been enabled, first, by the fact that Congress is Congress and inclined by nature to spend money it doesn’t have. And second, because there have been no serious consequences for our drunken sailoring. The angry Tea Party town halls are over. The phones no longer melt down. And admittedly the deficit hawks haven’t done themselves many favors. Warnings of inflation from Barack Obama’s stimulus package didn’t pan out; neither did comparisons to modern Greece or ancient Rome. Our profligate lunacy continues unabated primarily because it has yet to result in any palpable damage.

Or has it? Economic growth has slowed in recent years, which many economists say can result from high debt. Yet let’s concede the point for a moment. Let’s say that so far we’ve gotten away with fiscal murder. Who wants to wager the next generation’s future that this will continue? Who wants to put up our kids as collateral on a bet that the laws of economics have somehow been transcended? Yet this is what Capitol Hill is doing. We are no longer ‘kicking the can down the road,’ as the fiscal hawks used to say; it’s more like packing the can full of C4, lining up our children at midfield, flying in Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker and assuring him the thing won’t explode because actually it’s an investment in our future.

There’s no logic to any of this; record spending at a time of pent-up demand is not some kind of twelve-dimensional chess. Unlike Bill Clinton, unlike even Barack Obama, Joe Biden’s Democrats are simply out of ideas. Reform the wasteful and bureaucratic way we allot infrastructure funds? Simplify the tax code? Nah. Just set the machine to autopilot and blow out money to the usual causes and interest groups. As Jonathan Bydlak recently pointed out, the Republicans are hardly much better. Pointing quiveringly at the socialist menace now that Biden is in the White House, they ignore the fact that every united GOP government this century has also piled on the debt.

In which case: shame on all of them. And maybe it’s time to invest in that giant horde of cats after all. Surely a parliament of screeching felines would do a better job of governing us than this lot.

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