Alexander Pope died a few decades before the American Revolution, but his observations on vice aptly describe modern Americans’ attitudes toward Washington overspending during the past three decades. “We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
Today’s unabashed embrace of overspending now encompasses both political parties.
President Trump originally campaigned on a promise to wipe out deficits in eight years. Instead, he pushed tax cuts and increased spending, and both deficits and the national debt ballooned. Republican complicity, along with year after year of low interest rates, seemed to signal a turning point.
It’s not entirely accurate to say nobody at all cares. Individually, many politicians will express worries.
In a meeting with the Deseret News/KSL editorial board this week, Utah Sen. Mitt Romney listed the national debt among his top concerns, but he acknowledged Republicans have lost their moral authority on the issue.
“I think it’s very hard for many who were part of the last four years and who were comfortable with the borrowing that went on during the good times, it’s very difficult for them to say, ‘Hey, now we’re fiscally responsible,’” he said. “I think we’ve lost a lot of credibility with the American people in that regard, and I think that’s a very unfortunate reality. That doesn’t mean it’s not important.”
Romney touted his Trust Act, which would establish committees intended to rescue programs whose automatic spending increases are on a collision course with disaster, such as Social Security and Medicare.
But the Trust Act isn’t front-and-center on lawmakers’ minds. As the Economist noted, any talk of cutting deficits today “elicits little more than a roll of the eyes as a dumb if not immoral custom of a blinkered era.”
Which brings me back to Alexander Pope. How did we go from enduring to embracing?
Consider: In 1993, when Bill Clinton was inaugurated as president, the national debt stood at $4.4 trillion, which was the equivalent of 64% of the nation’s total economic output. This was seen as a concern because, only four years earlier, when George H.W. Bush was inaugurated, it had been $2.5 trillion and only 51% of GDP.
Three years later, when Clinton was seeking re-election, the national debt had grown to $5.2 trillion. Polls found that Americans considered Washington’s annual deficit, which feeds that debt, the most important problem facing the nation.
And so, Clinton, a Democrat, declared "the era of big government is over," during his State of the Union speech. Together with a Congress that was much more apt to work on compromises in those days, he delivered four straight surplus budgets.
Fast forward to today. The national debt has just zipped past $28 trillion and equals nearly 130% of the nation’s economic output. Even accounting for inflation, that is $11 trillion more than in 1996.
Washington’s annual budget deficit is $3.2 trillion, and President Biden is proposing adding trillions more with an economic recovery package — for a nation whose economy seems poised to recover from the pandemic quite well without it.
And yet, you have to search hard to find anyone who is concerned. In March of 2019, a Gallup poll found 50% of Americans saying they were personally concerned about federal overspending, down from 64% in 2011. But another Gallup poll this month could find only 3% listing it on an open-ended question about the most important problems facing the nation.
If the public doesn’t care, neither will the people they elect to represent them.
Perhaps 12 years of bailouts, beginning with the Great Recession, low interest rates and relative economic prosperity, have built a false sense of security. Annual interest payments on the debt are expected to be $378 billion this year, which is virtually unchanged over the last three years, according to thebalance.com.
But if interest rates rose only 1%, that figure would nearly double. If they rose much more, a crisis would ensue.
Perhaps that is the only way to snap the nation out of Alexander Pope’s cycle of acceptance. But it would be a harsh awakening.