The politics of division imposes an invisible cost to the Nation. Divisive politics inherently mean that almost no common ground exists for action on issues of great importance, and falling into the chasm between the two parties are calamitous dangers to national security that make our actual headlines today pale in comparison. One such danger in the political no-man’s-land is not even being discussed, and so no one is working on a solution: the national debt.
Almost ten years ago, Admiral Mike Mullen, then Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, did not identify an adversary nation or terrorist organization as the paramount threat to our country. He stated emphatically:
“The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.”
In the decade since then, the U.S. has continued to pursue two wars and other conflicts, largely outside the budget process and with no war tax to ameliorate the more than $5 trillion that has been spent. The Bush administration had already pushed through the Medicare Part D prescription drug program in 2003, and the Congress declined to find the revenues to pay for it, so it was paid for by increasing the debt. Later it was discovered that the Bush administration actually hid the real estimated costs of $534 billion. The hidden estimate was actually low; Medicare D increased the national debt by hundreds of billions dollars more than expected. And it was before an unmitigated, unpaid for $1.5 trillion tax cut that will cause the deficit in 2020 to spike, exploding the debt from the current high of $21 trillion to $33 trillion by 2028. That’s 33 with twelve zeros behind it: $33,000,000,000,000.
Lots of numbers, right? So it is helpful to find a way to put the debt into perspective. Since World War II until 2017, the government debt, compared to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), averaged just over 60 percent. During the Great Recession, the debt climbed to over 100 percent of America’s GDP as the government spent to stimulate growth. Now the Great Recession is over, but the national debt will top 105 percent of GDP this year. Politicians talk about reducing the deficit, but each deficit increases the debt.
To carry $21 trillion in debt as it grows quickly to $33 trillion means astronomical interest payments each year. The interest payment on the national debt last year (with low interest rates) was a whopping $263 billion, but it would grow to almost $1 trillion dollars a year by 2028, larger than the annual budget for Medicaid and larger than the defense budget. The current economic growth will not solve the problem; it won’t even pay for the tax cuts that just got approved.
And no one believes that economic growth will continue every year for the next ten years; another down turn will be consequential. When that next big recession comes, the economic and fiscal tools to handle it will not be there. The financial capacity of the nation will have been tapped, used up. The same is true of a war or large military conflict. FDR jacked military and government spending to around 100 percent of GDP to address World War II only because we had the capacity: the debt was only 45 percent of GDP in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. As America is saddled with more and more debt, it becomes more and more vulnerable, less ready to act and certainly looks weaker.
What did we get for all of this debt?
Not more national security. After 17 years of war and trillions of dollars poured into the Middle East, our security position in the world is about the same, our military is worn and in great need of an expensive refurbishment.
Not better infrastructure. Debt is a useful tool for improving public infrastructure upon which the economy depends, but we don’t have the capacity for infrastructure debt. Trillions will be needed just to get back to even.
Not a solution to stressed retirement and health systems. The can just keeps getting kicked down the road. But all of these will need to be solved even as the national debt looms over us.
The bitter medicine for addressing the national debt is the politically untenable combination of increasing taxes and decreasing expenditures. No other avenue exists. But the first deficit that must be addressed is one of leadership. Until our political leaders move the national debt to a central focus, view it as a threat to national security, and work for immediate and yet long-term non-partisan solutions, the U.S. is at risk. That risk may not be existential, but it is a deadly risk to American prosperity, our way of life, our leadership in the world and perhaps to our system of government.