George Will: Politicians have no qualms about borrowing from the future
Pursed lips and clucked tongues signaled disapproval among the wise and responsible when, at a recent televised event, Sen. Bernie Sanders did not plausibly explain how he would pay for “Medicare for All.” The remarkable thing, however, is the quaint expectation that any political person should explain how he or she would align proposed expenditures and actual revenues. For decades, the implicit answer has always been the same: They won’t even pretend to align them.
Under a Republican president and, until four months ago, Republican control of both houses of Congress, the nation is about to run trillion-dollar budget deficits. As the birth rate declines, the population ages and the country is told to be alarmed because too many would-be immigrants are trying to enter the country and its workforce.
Yet Sanders is supposed to hew to some archaic standards of fiscal probity? Why should an avowed socialist be held to standards of fiscal candor and prudence that have no discernible adherents in the avowedly conservative party?
Congressional Republicans are led on a short leash by a president who vowed to not touch entitlement programs that are significant drivers of the deficit, and who breezily promised to eliminate the national debt (currently $22 trillion) in eight years. Republicans struggle to frighten the 2020 electorate with the specter of spendthrift socialists threatening the Republic.
The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl notes that this year, as the national debt, which was $10 trillion in 2008, heads toward $38 trillion in 2029, the federal government will spend $35,148 per household and collect $26,677 per household in taxes.
For guidance on how to think about what the political class does not think about, read “Welfare and Debt: A Moynihanian Assessment” by Chris DeMuth of the Hudson Institute. In 1986, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., delivered an address titled “The Moral Dimensions of a Two Trillion Dollar Debt,” in which he pondered the virtue of self-denial — forgoing present pleasures for future benefits.
Even 33 years ago he saw that our public debt is morally “problematic”: “The people who do the borrowing, which is to say elected officials, are not the ones who will do the repaying. The temptation is real to use debt not as a form of investment, but a means of consumption.”
DeMuth says that in 1986, Moynihan was “stunningly perspicacious” about “one big thing,” which DeMuth calls “a transformation of the political economy of federal government.” From the Founding until the fourth quarter of the 20th century, the political economy — the government’s taxing and spending — had been used primarily to provide “public goods” such as defense, diplomacy, courts, infrastructure, schools. Suddenly, the political economy became “primarily a provider of private consumption by individuals.”
What DeMuth calls the new “borrowed-benefits” budget norm is financed to a significant extent by borrowing from nonconsenting future generations. This, says DeMuth, is just one facet of “our comprehensive rejection of constraint — not only in public finance but in politics, in constitutional structure, in rhetoric, and in culture.”
The word that describes this is: “decadence.” And the word that describes today’s belief, which fuels apocalyptic rhetoric about the supposedly stark differences between the parties, is: “nonsense.”
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post and can be reached via email.