FREEPORT – The United States won’t default on its debt if the borrowing ceiling isn’t raised by Aug. 2, nor will Social Security checks stop, as President Obama darkly hinted at a recent news conference.

The country will be effectively bankrupt after that date because it won’t have enough money to pay all its bills for the rest of the month, but it will have enough to make essential payments like interest on the debt, Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid claims and salaries for active military personnel, with something left over for other critical government services.

But because the government needs to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends, there will be a lot of bills it can’t pay — about $134 billion worth for the month of August alone, according to an estimate of Treasury flows by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The most likely outcome of the fiscal crisis is that Congress will reach some accommodation with the president to raise the debt ceiling.

But the larger and more important question than the details of the borrowing increase is how the financial condition of a great nation could deteriorate so badly that it can’t pay its bills without increasingly large amounts of debt.

The answer starts with the simple fact that the country’s spending has exceeded its income for decades.

Except for small surpluses between 1998 and 2001, the federal budget has produced deficits every year since 1959.

In most years, the shortfalls were a small percentage of GDP and could easily be borrowed, but they nonetheless contributed steadily to indebtedness that over 40 years has grown to $14 trillion.

It’s easy to assign the blame for years of excessive and irresponsible spending to the politicians of both parties, but the full explanation is more complicated.

The American public is complicit in the accumulation of our mountain of debt.

We have gotten into the habit of expecting the government to provide all manner of things without paying much attention to priorities or worrying about how all the largess is paid for.

Over time, entitlement programs, spending for which is on automatic pilot, have become an increasingly large portion of the budget.

Some of these programs have been growing faster than the economy or tax receipts for years. Medicare and Medicaid alone are on track to eventually absorb every dollar of federal revenue.

A rigid sense of entitlement and a reflexive refusal on the part of beneficiaries and their political supporters to consider any reforms in the programs have made it increasingly difficult to bring overall spending under control.

Americans don’t object to borrowing on principle, but most of us understand that failing to match our spending, including debt repayment, with our income is a quick way to financial ruin.

Our federal government doesn’t recognize the same constraint. It borrows as if it has a credit card balance that never has to be paid off. When the borrowing limit is reached, Congress normally raises it without much fuss.

This practice has worked for a long time, but its costs have finally become too big to ignore. Without significant spending restraint, the CBO expects that cumulative deficits over the next 10 years will total $7 trillion.

As a result, interest expense in 2021 will be over $800 billion and will be the fourth largest item on the national budget behind Medicare, Social Security and national defense.

If this outlook is not altered substantially and soon, the country will face the need to raise the debt ceiling repeatedly in coming years, and there will likely be the same contentious arguments we are having today about how it is to be done. The potential for new crises will always be present.

Republicans are right that entitlement reform must be part of a long-term budget plan and that an enforceable balanced budget mechanism is needed to do what Congress has proven it can’t or won’t do voluntarily.

These reforms aren’t going to get done within the next month and will probably require a different Congress and a different president.

In the meantime, we stagger down the road toward a bankrupt Greece, with stops along the way at the entitlement nations of Europe that we increasingly resemble.

– Special to the Press Herald