Our national debt
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said, "If you don't work you die.”
-- Rudyard Kipling, The Gods of the Copybook Headings
Something very odd is happening in our country these days, our people have become worried about the national debt.
What's odd about that? (I hear you say.) Isn't it something to worry about?
Indeed it is, but we never worried about it before. Why have we started now?
Our national debt has been mounting ever higher longer than I've been alive. I've read dire warnings of the consequences to come for decades now. Warnings that included hyperinflation, economic collapse, food riots, and possibly a dictator sweeping to power, a la the Weimar Republic of Germany in the 1930s.
Thoughtful people did worry about the long-term consequences of rising indebtedness, but generally the only people who got really scared were fringoid types who stockpiled guns and canned goods, and muttered darkly about the Bavarian Illuminati controlling the Federal Reserve.
Intellectually everybody knew you can't keep spending more than you earn, as a household or a nation, and you can't live on borrowed money forever. But it never felt really real, and the inevitable consequences seemed a long way off.
Now you can feel it, people are really scared. Ordinary people like you and me, not “Nazis,” not “mobs,” and not “racists,” either. And we're telling our senators and representatives about it in Town Hall meetings across the country, as little as they like to hear it.
What's different now?
I don't know for sure, but I can hazard some guesses.
One: The national debt finally hit the magic trillion mark that had been predicted for years, and it's projected to go into the multi-trillions in fairly short order. We used to think the longer the string of zeros, the less people were able to visualize the order of magnitude. Maybe there's something about 12 zeros that makes an impression a mere nine zeros didn't.
Two: The Democrats read the election wrong. The Republicans were turned out in disgrace at least partly because of disgust with George Bush's massive budget deficits and the first bailout. Then inexplicably the Democrats, rather than returning to the relative fiscal sanity of the Clinton years, took it as permission to max out the federal credit card and send the deficit into the stratosphere.
Three: Personal experience with debt. We live in a self-indulgent age of easy credit, and consequently an awful lot of us now have the experience of opening that dreaded credit statement every month. We've had our “Holy heck, the whole country is maxed out!” moment.
Four: We know who we owe. It used to be the vast majority had only vague notions of what the national debt was. We were reassured with soporifically stupid statements like, “We owe it to ourselves.” Nowadays whatever else you can say about media coverage, there has actually been discussion about who holds the debt. And as it turns out, mostly it's China.
So what's going to happen?
Some place their hopes on a third party to restore fiscal sanity. But there seems to be something in the political structure of our country that makes this unlikely. A third party rising to permanent national status has happened precisely once in our history, when Lincoln led the Republicans to victory in 1860.
Republicans are hoping for a replay of the mid-term elections of 1994 when they swept the House and Senate and taught Clinton the lesson that, “The era of Big Government is over.”
But in the longer run that didn't stop the Republicans from, to put it bluntly, betraying us. Perhaps they'll get another chance, simply because there is no one else to turn to. If so, then God help them if they betray us again. God help all of us.
And after this being accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!