Free lunch economics

Almost 20 years ago, this newspaper felt it important to start keeping track of our rising federal debt; thus the debt box on the front page of each edition. In 1999, our national debt was $5.5 trillion or $20,600 for every citizen.

Today our national debt clock ticks away adding millions each day. Our current federal debt is over $21.2 trillion — quadrupling over the past 20 years. It works out to over $65,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Last year, the interest on our federal debt consumed 8 percent of all federal tax revenues. Moody’s, the federal credit rating service that scores government spending and borrowing, predicts that the debt service payments will be over 21 percent of revenues in less than 10 years. This means that there will be less funding (a lot less) for education, health care, the military and transportation needs, among others.

Besides the ever-increasing federal debt interest payments, failure to control entitlement spending, lack of proportional budgeting for government pension programs, plus unfunded expansions of Medicare programs nationwide will soon overwhelm all aspects of the federal budget — just as it has in the 22-states with budget shortfalls last year for the very same reasons.

Last month, the federal government — the House, the Senate and the President — passed a temporary $1.3-trillion budget that far exceeded predicted tax revenues, and further pushed the debt burden down the road. Congress is neglecting its financial obligations. All in Washington and, too often, in Augusta, cavalierly support grants, bonds, incentives and government programs that are unsupported by revenues, adding to taxpayer obligations.

Personal debt also has ballooned. Credit card debt, mortgage debt, college-loan debt, new-car loan debt are all at record levels. “We are in a full-blown era of free lunch economics where no one says no to anyone anymore,” says Maya MacGuineas of the Responsible Federal Budget Committee. This societal shift to denying our obligations and ignoring the consequences of higher interest rates and the burden of the debt, unfunded pensions and Medicaid expansions will be economically catastrophic and lead to unsustainable inflation and taxes.

Tax Day is April 17. We all need to understand that fulfilling this reporting exercise is but a tiny part of our national debt problem. Our political leaders and the public need to face the consequences. Significant changes need to be made, and soon. We can no longer afford to kick this debt and interest cost can down the road.

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