November 4, 2016

The Prophetic George Washington (Part 3)

Washington continued his address by transitioning to the matter of public debt. Debt was a big deal during the Washington administration and the assumption of state debts was a crucial element of the plan out forward by Alexander Hamilton to unify the nation and strengthen its economy. (Interestingly, this plan also ended up resulting in Hamilton’s support of relocating the national capital to the banks of the Potomac River, as he needed Thomas Jefferson’s support for his financial plan). Washington was intimately familiar with the financial cost of war and with what happens when soldiers and officers are not paid as promised, so he knew whereof he spoke when he addressed the matter of public debt. Still, while recognizing that it may at times be necessary, he left no question as to his opinion on the subject. Note what he had to say:

As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit. One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace, but remembering also that timely disbursements to prepare for danger frequently prevent much greater disbursements to repel it; avoiding likewise the accumulation of debt, not only by shunning occasions of expense, but by vigorous exertions in time of peace to discharge the debts which unavoidable wars may have occasioned, not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear. The execution of these maxims belongs to your representatives, but it is necessary that public opinion should cooperate. To facilitate to them the performance of their duty, it is essential that you should practically bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant; that the intrinsic embarrassment inseparable from the selection of the proper objects (which is always a choice of difficulties) ought to be a decisive motive for a candid construction of the conduct of the government in making it, and for a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue which the public exigencies may at any time dictate.

That’s a long paragraph and it is, at times, wordy, but Washington makes three key points: avoid debt whenever possible, pay off debt that was unavoidable as quickly as possible, and remember that public debt can only be paid from public revenue–so it is necessary to pay taxes.

The United States has done exactly what Washington advised so strongly against. We have accumulated, and continued to add to, a massive public debt–one now hovering around $20 trillion. We have, for several generations now, been “ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.” Back in 1995 and again in 1997 I devoted considerable time and attention to the federal budget–why it was in the shape it was in and what needed to be done about it. I did that as a lowly undergraduate student in college. My research and findings generated mild interest from professors at my university as well as others after I presented at an honors symposium, but it was essentially an academic exercise. Nothing came of it and no one really paid much attention. Several years before that Harry Figgie and Gerald Swanson had written a book–which did receive a fair amount of attention–entitled Bankruptcy 1995. Believe it or not, the predictions of that book could not have been much closer to spot on, as the federal government did shut down over budgetary issues in 1995. In his two presidential runs, but especially in 1992, Ross Perot devoted the bulk of his attention and energy to the matter of the U.S. debt. What, by the way, was the national debt in 1992? It was just over $4 trillion. We’re not doing anything to solve the problem. We are burdened with a debt that our ancestors ungenerously burdened us with, and we are doing nothing but piling on to it and–ungenerously–passing it on to our posterity. Eventually someone is going to have to pay the piper.

That piper, by the way, is mostly U.S. citizens and entities, but about one-third of U.S. debt is owned by foreign nations. About $1.3 trillion is held by China and $1.1 trillion by Japan, with other nations holding $3.8 trillion (according to a May 2016 report from CNN). And that raises another point that Washington made. He cautioned strongly against being attached too strongly to other nations, be that through treaties or just closer-than-healthy fondness. He did not mention debt specifically, but he would have understood it as an issue, since the United States had debts owed to France following the Revolutionary War. Such “avenues to foreign influence,” Washington said, “are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot.” Why would that be? Simply this:

Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. … Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and to serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other.

Washington cautioned the U.S. to honor its existing treaties at the time he left office and to resist making more. The risks involved with getting too entwined with another country were simply not worth it, Washington believed. The risks far outweighed the reward. That is because, as Washington and so many of the founders understood, human nature is fickle and corrupt. It is hard enough to govern your own people fairly and effectively; why introduce a dependence upon the people and/or governments of other nations over which the U.S. had (and has) no control? “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation,” Washington said.

We have failed, as a nation, to heed Washington’s warnings about party and faction. We have failed to heed his warnings about religion and morality. We have failed to heed his warnings about public debt and dependence upon foreign nations. Regardless of who wins the election next Tuesday, We the People have a long way to go and a lot of work to do to even begin to rectify the mess we have gotten ourselves in by ignoring, and continuing to ignore, the wisdom of the Father of our Country. George Washington was not perfect because no one is. Imagine, however, how different things would be today if our parties disagreed respectfully and actually worked together to accomplish what is best for the country. Imagine how different things would be today if religion and morality were not relegated to the categories of irrelevant and unnecessary. Imagine how different things would be if we paid off unavoidable debts quickly or even, having missed the chance to do that, determined to stop adding to it. That would be a very different country than the one we find ourselves in today.

January 29, 2015

The State of the Union

In my last post I explained the very serious problem that is the United States’ position on abortion. Unfortunately, there were a few other problems with Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address, too.

Just a few minutes into the address the President said, “It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.” I see two issues there. One, it really is not up to us. It is actually up to Someone much bigger than “us”, whether you mean any of “us” individually or the collective “us”. Mr. Obama’s comment reminds of something we have probably all heard in commencement addresses, when the speaker tells the graduates, “You can be anything you want to be. Whatever you put your mind to, you can do.” Well, not really. We hear it all the time, but deep down we all know it is just not true. There are some things that, no matter how much we might want to, just will never be. It is at our own peril that we ignore the fact that God is big and we are small, that He is omnipotent and we most definitely are not, that He knows tomorrow and we usually have a hard time figuring out today.

The other problem I see with the “up to us” statement is that we do not know who “us” is. “Us” usually refers to the collective “we.” But “we” have made it clear time after time that we do not want homosexual marriage and we want very strict limitation on abortion. The courts, however, have not seemed to care in the least what matters to “us” in those instances. If by “us” President Obama means the elected officials who were sitting in the House chamber when he delivered that speech, we should all be very afraid.

I confess I do not know what he may have been referring to, but Mr. Obama also said that “we’ve seen…our deficits cut by two-thirds.” Really? What deficits might those be, pray tell? According to the Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. national debt was $10 trillion at the end of the George W. Bush administration. It is now over $17 trillion. How might we have added $7 trillion dollars to the debt during Obama’s administration while simultaneously reducing the deficit? According to the Congressional Budget Office numbers, 2013 was the first year of the Obama administration in which the annual national debt increase was not higher than it had been in any previous administration. Even the 2013 increase was lower only than the last year of the Bush administration; it was still higher than the other seven Bush years. And while the total budget deficit did go down for three consecutive years from 2011 to 2013, the 2013 numbers were about half of the 2009 numbers, not one-third. These numbers are not difficult to find, Mr. President; why not just tell us the truth?

Mr. Obama played the clanging cymbal of the minimum wage increase during his address, too. He challenged the members of Congress to support a family on less than $15,000 a year if they are unwilling to raise the minimum wage. I have explained at length in this space before why a minimum wage increase is not the panacea those who support it seem to think it is, so I will not go into that here. Suffice it to say that the minimum wage is supposed to be exactly that–the minimum. No one should stay there indefinitely. Neither was it ever intended to provide for the support of a family.

Mr. Obama also commented that “we stand united with people around the world who’ve been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris.” With all due respect, Mr. President, sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Paris with James Taylor to sing “You’ve Got a Friend” is probably not what the French people have in mind when they hear us say we “stand united” with them.

Despite all of the above, the most troubling thing about Barack Obama’s address other than his silence on the right to life was this gem: “And no challenge, no challenge, poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change. 2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.” Really? The National Climactic Data Center does claim that 2014 was the warmest year across global land and ocean surfaces since anyone started keeping records in 1880, but there are so many ways to spin this information it is not even funny. Ignore the fact that I do not think climate change is much of a problem at all; even if it is, is it really the greatest threat to future generations? I doubt it, though I suspect ISIS appreciates being overlooked.

It’s important to know what the President has to say. It is equally important, though, to check your facts. All may not be as it seems.

September 7, 2012

$16 Trillion

Filed under: Politics/Current Events — jbwatson @ 8:45 pm
Tags: , , ,

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.

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