COLUMN: Spending what we don’t have is now the American way

Friday, December 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Imagine our beloved Uncle Sam standing before us as he empties both hip pockets until they’re inside out. As one lonely coin falls to the ground and spins to a stop, he smiles sadly and shakes his head.

“My fellow Americans,” he delivers in a stern deadpan, “We are now flat broke.”

If Uncle Sam were a flesh-and-blood person rather than an iconic ad campaign, no doubt that’s what he would say after taking a gander at our current debt: $12,027,341,155,152.20, as of this writing.

Tallied up all those zeroes yet? That’s $12 trillion and change. And I guarantee it will be higher by the time you check it. Following the U.S. National Debt Clock used to amuse me. Now it scares me.

Our deficit for the fiscal year 2009 stands at $1.42 trillion, more than triple the record set in 2008, with future deficits projected to top $9.1 trillion for the next decade. To pay off the debt in its entirety would cost almost $40,000 for each and every American, according to the Associated Press. Even paying off last year’s interest on the debt came to $452 billion. The only recipients of federal spending who garnered higher sums were Medicare & Medicaid Services, Social Security and defense.

Question: When our government bankbooks reveal nothing but negative numbers, do we ever reach the point where we collectively admit as a nation that the coffers are tapped? That we can no longer afford to contribute billion after billion to bailouts, nation-building in foreign lands or overhauling health care plans?

It’s one thing to maintain debt in the millions, or even in the billions. But trillions? To grasp how much loot we’re talking, the National Debt Clock in Times Square had to cram the “1” and the dollar sign in the same box because it didn’t have enough room otherwise. And that was a year ago when we first broke the $10 trillion mark.

Aside from ourselves, from whom are we borrowing money? Mostly Japan and China, with about 25 other countries picking up the nickels and dimes. What happens if those foreign lenders decide they no longer want to keep dishing out the dough? Nobody knows.

Debt is nothing new, of course. Except for the late 1990s — the last time I remember hearing the word "surplus" on the evening news — the United States has spent nearly all of its existence in the red. In 1790, the Continental Congress took on $75 million in war debts. It’s been downhill ever since with only one other debt-free year, 1834-1835.

In recent memory, the inheritor to 2001’s miraculous $800 billion surplus, George W. Bush, blew through cash like an 18-year-old with his first credit card thanks to the "war on terror" combined with sweeping tax cuts. He even made history of sorts as the first president to offer a tax cut in wartime. The Republicans who remained silent during this era and now blast President Obama for excessive spending are as aggravating as the Democrats who now claim more excessive spending is our only option.

Obama has not performed any better than his predecessor, as he supports an ambitious roster of government programs but seems only trifled at the thought of having to borrow to pay for them. We can blame Bush for creating the mess, or we can blame Obama for not cleaning it up. Or we can blame both.

Deciding which budgets to slash is not easy. Doing so in a manner that is fair and dignified will require better leadership than we’ve seen thus far from either side of the aisle.

Underscoring the problem is the fact that our spending as a country mirrors our spending as individuals. College students, including myself, no longer blink at the thought of borrowing up to $150,000 to obtain a degree from a reputable university. Credit card debt is at an all-time high, creeping toward $10,000 for the average American household. Many people have resigned themselves to the fact that they could spend the majority of their adult lives owing money on something, be it a car, house, education or simply an indulgent lifestyle.

I claim no moral high ground on financial responsibility. I’ve borrowed much more money in student loans than I anticipated. In years past, I thought nothing of piling up a few thousand dollars in credit card debt, and I’d be lying if I said every purchase was for a necessity.

But after realizing how much I was losing in finance charges, the solution was easy. I took my credit cards out of my wallet one day and stuffed them in a drawer. Their debt is now a monthly bill to be paid down like any other, not an expense to be accumulated at will.

At some point in the not-so-distant future — like now — America needs to do the same.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and produces the radio show Global Journalist.



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Frank Garro December 4, 2009 | 6:41 a.m.

As you point out, the only time we as a nation were debt free was during Andrew Jackson's presidency. The economic policies that accomplished that feat led directly to the country's (up to that point) greatest depression that lasted well into the 1840s. Contracting spending and slashing the federal budget during an economic downturn is tantamount to putting a pistol to one's head and giving the trigger a slight pull. Just ask Herbert Hoover, or FDR for that matter in 1937 (tried to balance the budget taking the improving economy in the opposite direction). The time for fiscal conservatism is during better economic times. Without the spending of the last year or so there would have been a strong possibility of your not being able to attain any student loans at all, your credit card probably would have been canceled, and you most likely would be joining many of your fellow Americans in asking brother can you spare a dime. I believe what is now the American Way is to simplistically equate personal finance with the finances of the world's largest economy.

(Report Comment)
Brian Jarvis December 4, 2009 | 5:25 p.m.

That's a great point, Frank, but are you troubled at all by the skyrocketing growth of our debt in recent years that's now in the Guinness Book of Records? If our economic strategy is to keep blowing up the bubble bigger and bigger, we may reach the threshold where the bubble bursts. I would agree that borrowing is an effective strategy, but no pit is bottomless.

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