The National Debt Is Dooming Us and Nobody Seems to Care

united states currency seal - IMG_7366_web
Image by kevindean via Flickr

America’s debt crisis is the defining issue of our time. With the impending mass-retirement of the Baby Boomers, our debt — already, at sixteen trillion dollars, breathtaking and virtually insurmountable — is set to explode and send us into a tailspin in the decades to come. The federal government has promised tens of trillions of dollars to the next wave of seniors — money that we don’t have and have no real plan to obtain.

There is an implicit assumption behind the international community’s relative confidence in the United States that, when push comes to shove, our leaders really are going to buckle down and implement serious reforms. The current state of affairs tells us that this confidence has been nothing more than wishful thinking. And as our credit downgrade last year demonstrates, people are slowly starting to recognize that.

When Social Security began, there were sixteen workers paying into the system for every one retiree. Today, that ratio has dwindled to nearly two-to-one. People haven’t had nearly as many children, and they live, on average, for almost a decade longer. The population has aged dramatically — the Baby Boomers betrayed my generation by saddling us with their debt, and there’s not even any “us” to pay it all back.

This should be one of the — if not the — most-discussed issues of our time. Instead, entitlement reform languishes underneath the surface; all but a handful of brave politicians pretend not to notice it. It is the quintessential elephant in the room: everyone knows there’s a problem, but the politics of it are so radioactive and so susceptible to demagoguery that few dare to touch it.

There are a host of viable options for reform, most or all of which need to be taken into account in order to get this situation under control: private accounts and vouchers, reductions in benefits, raising the retirement age, means-testing, incentives to delay or even opt-out of benefits, and — perhaps — a hike in the cap for Social Security taxes. Everything should be on the table.

This is an issue that will require presidential leadership. We know that Barack Obama is useless. But unfortunately, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are also completely unserious about entitlement reform. Romney spent the better part of the early fall attacking Rick Perry for his factual statements about the nature of Social Security. He employed the tactics of the far-left in portraying Perry as a heartless fascist who wants to throw grandmothers out on the streets and force them to eat dog food. Gingrich has attacked Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan — which, in fact, doesn’t even go far enough — as “right-wing social engineering,” supported the largest expansion of the entitlement state since Lyndon Johnson, and denies that Social Security is in need of any reform beyond optional personal accounts.

We live in an age where a presidential candidate is more likely to rise to prominence because he slammed a debate moderator than because he showed courage in taking on a difficult issue. The debates have featured virtually no questions about the crisis in Europe. We have heard almost nothing about how President Obama is planning to run up another one trillion dollars in debt. It has gone virtually unnoticed that our debt-to-GDP ratio has finally cracked 100%. We are on the road to Greece, and nobody seems to care.

We have lived for decades by the logic of John Maynard Keynes’ dismissive crack toward capitalists’ warnings about the long-run consequences of quick-fix policies: “In the long run, we’re all dead.” But today is yesterday’s long-run, and my generation is stuck footing the bill for the Baby Boomers’ greed and the ruling class’ betrayal of our future.

If nothing is done to stabilize this impending crisis — and, as of right now, it’s not looking likely — then America as we know it will likely no longer exist in just a few decades. My great fear is that, by the time that we finally decide to stop playing pretend, it will be too late.

Alex Knepper