Earlier this week the national debt of the United States passed the $16 trillion mark. According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, that translates to more than $51,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. That means my family of four is on the hook for more than $200k.
I am not going to engage in a political argument regarding which party, which president, and which whatever-else is most at fault for this figure. Instead, I am going to try to put the number in an understandable context, offer a biblical perspective on it, and then suggest why this debt is a serious problem for our nation.
By way of context, I was reminded of an illustration of the size of the national debt I found particularly startling back in 1995…based on the national debt of $4.6 trillion in 1994. This illustration comes from Common Cents, a book written by Tim Penny, a congressman from Minnesota who retired after the 1994 elections following six terms in the House of Representatives, and Major Garret, who was then a correspondent for the Washington Times and is now a correspondent for The National Journal (and was, between those two jobs, a senior White House correspondent for FOX News).
“Look at your wristwatch or a clock on the wall. Study the second hand. Watch it for exactly one minute. Imagine counting out one dollar for each second. By my reckoning, it takes about one second to say the words one dollar. Well, it would take 11.5 days to count $1 million. It would take 31.7 years to count $1 billion. The deficit in 1994 was $234 billion. It would take you 7,417 years to count that much money. The federal debt in 1994 will exceed $4.6 trillion. It would take you 145,820 years to count that much money.”
Scary, isn’t it? And that was when the debt was just more than a quarter of what it is now! According to official figures, the deficit last year was $1.3 trillion. How sad it is that we could long for the days when the federal government “only” spent $234 billion a year more than it took in!
How about some biblical perspective… Romans 13:8 says to “owe no one anything.” As ideal as that would be, I believe there are times, at the personal and national levels, when some debt is justified. Psalm 37:21 says “the wicked borrows but does not pay back….” That is a bit more on target, since to this point our government seems to just keep borrowing…never paying back or decreasing the debt. Proverbs 22:7 says that “the borrower is servant to the lender.” This is relevant, too, since a considerable portion of the U.S. national debt is held by other nations (most notably China).
So, why is this such a serious problem?
First, it is a moral problem. To continue to spend money that we do not have simply serves to kick the proverbial can of responsibility further down the road, leaving it to the generations to pay off. No responsible parent would want to leave a crushing debt to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the U.S. should not do that, either.
Second, it is an economic problem. As we, nationally, continue to spend more money that we have, we serve only to exacerbate the problem. The debt of $1.3 trillion in FY 2011 was more than five times the debt in 1994, when Penny and Garret wrote their book. According to an article published by CNS News last September, that means that the deficit in 2011 was $22 billion more than the entire federal government spent in 1970, even with inflation-adjusted dollars. In FY 2011, interest payments on the national debt were $230 billion!
Third, it is a national security problem. When we are unable to exercise fiscal restraint, we jeopardize the security of our nation. We do this by (1) increasing dependence on loans from foreign governments, some of which are not always friendly to the U.S. and/or may use the loans as leverage in trade negotiations, etc; and (2) seriously limiting our available discretionary spending even if a budget were to be balanced.
So, it doesn’t matter what party you support, because the national debt is not a purely political issue. It is a serious moral, economic and national security issue that requires citizens to stand up and demand that our elected officials make the difficult decisions to reign in our spending and balance our budget.