If you want a scary costume for your kids Monday, tell them to dress up as a Democratic politician running a budget – any budget, at any level of the government, anywhere in the U.S. – because it’s by far the most terrifying thing going on right now.

Yes, we live in terrifying times. The world seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse, with the war in Europe raising the stakes between nuclear powers. If that’s too immediately frightening for you, there are any number of disasters to be scared of, thanks to fear-mongering politicians on both sides of the aisle: climate change, immigration, COVID-19, the economy – take your pick from the grab bag, depending on your ideological preference (or, possibly, what you had to eat last night).

This isn’t a coincidence: A skilled politician in the age of social media knows that the key to winning hearts and minds isn’t painting a vision for a positive future, it’s terrifying people into submission. In a sense, this isn’t new: It’s something tyrants frequently use on their way to power.

So, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s another thing you should be scared of. And it’s a more legitimate fear than many of the aforementioned potential calamities. It’s been a slow-building disaster for my entire lifetime, one that politicians from both parties used to at least occasionally pretend to be concerned about, but lately they’ve completely abandoned: the national debt.

Before you say, but wait, when Bill Clinton was president, he (working together with Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is rarely mentioned in this context) erased the national debt. We were, you may believe, a debt-free nation for a brief moment in the 1990s, around the time when MTV actually still played music on television.

Well, sorry, we weren’t. We were never debt-free. Instead, the deficit didn’t exist for a few brief years back then, theoretically allowing us to begin to pay off the debt. To review: the national deficit is the difference between what we spend and what we take in, whether annually, daily or whatever – pick a time period. The national debt is the total amount of money that we owe from all of the years in which we had a deficit. It’s somewhat analogous to the difference between your total credit card debt and failing to make enough money to pay your regular monthly bills, like rent.

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Got it? OK, good. That difference is important.

The New York Times recently reported – on its front page, amazingly – that the national debt topped $31 trillion for the first time. This isn’t surprising: Under both Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the federal government has been spending wildly to, they assure us, keep the economy from going into a tailspin during the pandemic – or, you know, because they felt like it.

The problem isn’t necessarily just that we’ve been spending freely during a crisis. It’s that we always spend freely when a crisis comes along, and we never tighten our belts when it’s over.

Think of all the other crises over the years. The 2007-2008 recession, the Sept. 11 attacks, the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Regardless of whether all of those decisions were wise, they weren’t paid for with budget cuts or tax increases – either during or after the crises. Instead, the national debt just kept piling up, throughout both Republican and Democratic administrations, for a variety of reasons.

At a state level, we’ve seen a similar pattern of behavior. Here in Maine, we never have an ongoing debt and we only ever briefly have a deficit because, unlike the federal government, our state constitution requires us to balance our budget. That’s a good thing, and even if you don’t believe the federal government should adopt a similar measure, it’s surely reasonable that it should try to pay down the debt when the times are good and we can afford it. Sadly, they never do that.

At the state level, we face a different problem: taxes and spending constantly increase and rarely decrease. Sure, the budget may be balanced, but it rarely shrinks. A few exceptions were the tax cuts passed in 2010, and state budget expenditures in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Neither party is fiscally responsible enough but, especially in Maine, the Republicans have historically been more reliable at managing the budget than the Democrats.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: @jimfossel


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