By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
In a democracy, providing for the common good is the measure of political legitimacy. The inherent weakness of a democracy is its inability to distinguish between what the majority of people want and what they need; and that has caused America to ignore budgetary constraints and imperil its economic future with a massive national debt on its progeny.
It has been said that when a majority in a democracy realize they can vote to enrich themselves, they will do just that; and If and when that happens, democracy will be doomed. The unborn cannot vote, but they will have to bear the oppressive burden of debt incurred by their profligate forebears. No democracy can survive that kind of fiscal irresponsibility.
A majority of Americans now embrace the Epicurean ideal to eat, drink and don’t worry, be happy, while leaving the bill for their irresponsible spending for their progeny. The greatest commandment defines the common good as loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and that includes unborn Americans who will inherit a massive U.S. national debt of $30 trillion.
The last year the US had a budget surplus was 2001, and since then the deficit has increased from $billions to $trillions. All the while Keynesian economists have assured us that our debt is nothing to worry about. While the free spending has produced a booming stock market during the pandemic, it has also exacerbated America’s increasing income disparities.
Even so, President Biden and Democrats emphasized that America must go big with a pandemic stimulus of $1.9 trillion that would shower cash on 90% of Americans. It had broad public support since it went far beyond COVID relief and promised cash to most Americans, even though it would make the national debt an unconscionable burden on future generations.
No Republicans supported Biden’s bill, but they are complicit in running up the debt after passing a 2017 tax relief bill that benefited the rich and increased the deficit. By increasing an astronomical national debt, America’s polarized partisan politics are leading it to ruin. The lack of a voice for fiscal restraint in Washington portends the demise of American democracy.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is a bipartisan government agency that has projected that in 2031 “the national debt would equal 107 percent of GDP, its highest level in the nation’s history. Growth in outlays would outpace growth in revenues in subsequent decades, leading to growing budget deficits over the long term. As a result, federal debt would continue to increase, exceeding 200 percent of GDP by 2051.” Imposing such an oppressive burden on future generations of Americans is obviously not providing for the common good.
The common good in American democracy has evolved from Thomas Jefferson’s enlightened belief that “the moral teachings of Jesus are the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” to Donald Trump's egregious immorality that is the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus. President Biden is now promoting a free spending ethic that jeopardizes America’s future, so that defining the common good in America remains a work in progress.
Jeff Stein has observed that Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan reflects seismic shifts in U.S. politics. “In 2009 a new Democratic administration faced down a massive economic crisis with a $800 billion stimulus package. A bloc of centrist Democrats balked at the price-tag, and Republicans were thrown into a frenzy warning about the impact to the federal deficit. A little more than a decade later, another new Democratic administration took office facing a different economic crisis. This time, it proposed spending an additional $1.9 trillion, even though the federal deficit last year was $3.1 trillion — much larger than during the last crisis. The disparity between the reception to President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan and President Biden’s is the result of several seismic shifts in American politics — the most dramatic of which may be the attitudes about the role of government in helping the economy. Since the outset of the coronavirus, polling has found substantial support among Americans for providing more government aid for those in need. That is partially due to the nature of the current crisis, which for a time opened a deeper economic hole than even the Great Recession. But the shift is also the result of a reorientation on economic policy — both on the left and on the right — that has transformed the political landscape. On the right, congressional Republican lawmakers may still fret about higher deficits — but the most popular politician among their voters does not. Both as a candidate and as president, Donald Trump blew past Republican concerns about the deficit, pushing for trillions in additional spending and tax cuts and running unprecedented peacetime debt levels. And on the left, Democratic lawmakers have increasingly learned to ignore fears about spending too much. Democrats also repeatedly tout the 2017 Republican tax cut, which is expected to add approximately $2 trillion to the national deficit, as a reason to be skeptical of GOP concerns about fiscal restraint.
A Monmouth University poll taken in late February found more than 60 percent of Americans supported the $1.9 trillion measure. More than two-thirds of Americans also said they would rather the relief package include $1,400 stimulus checks than see bipartisan support for the effort. Quinnipiac University found in a poll released in February that 78% of Americans supported $1,400 stimulus payments.
Every Republican in both the House and Senate voted against the bill, undermining Biden’s campaign promises to work across the aisle and find common ground. The president’s difficulty at points securing the support of centrist Senate Democrats — a process that led to a nine-hour standoff with Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) on Friday — also suggests the challenges he is likely to face securing support for his next legislative effort.
“In the background leading to the Obama era, $300 billion deficits were considered a crisis, and in that context an $800 billion stimulus was an enormous sticker shock even among Democrats,” said Brian Riedl, a former aide to Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) now at the libertarian-leaning Manhattan Institute. “It has been a massive shift toward the view [that] almost no level of borrowing will have negative consequences. Billions just became trillions.”
In the 1990s, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), now vice-chair of the House’s Joint Economic Committee, supported the Democratic presidential candidates who campaigned on closing the national deficit. Beyer’s thinking has changed. He cited conversations with a range of economists on wonky issues such as the relationship between employment and inflation, as well as watching the impact of covid relief aid as it was sprayed across the American economy. Beyer added: “I was knocking doors for Joe Biden last fall the most memorable conversation I had was with a guy who said, ‘I just want to know who will send me the checks.’ See https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2021/03/07/stimulus-politics/?utm.
For the CBO’s 2021 long term budget outlook, see https://www.cbo.gov/publication56780.