People have a tragic flaw: Sometimes we want others to do the thinking for us. And across the ages promoters and con men have been more than willing to oblige. They invite us to indulge in the fantasy that a newfound father figure will fix it all, though it never works out that way.
This is the premise of a prescient book from 1841, “Extraordinary Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” by the Scottish journalist Charles MacKay, which documents in extensive detail the moments when entire societies have set aside their own good judgment under the spell of a charlatan.
We are in one of those moments today.
President Trump’s abandonment of fiscal responsibility will prove disastrous — whether we think about it or not. His State of the Union address underscored his own thinking; it was long on pander and did not address our country’s bleak financial state.
Yet amazingly, conservatives whom I have long respected somehow look the other way.
What if it were President Barack Obama allowing the national debt to grow by a trillion dollars a year, despite the booming economy? What if other Republican presidents had abandoned the idea of trying to get to a balanced budget over the next 10 years? We would hear howls of protest. But now? Crickets.
This is a mistake. What is accumulating is deadly: Bad finances kill countries. There is no bigger issue.
And so while the president’s State of the Union was certainly a made-for-TV moment, with a proverbial “chicken for every conservative pot,” his time in office has left out the main ingredient of what conservatism used to be based on — how big is government, and are we paying for the government we own? He didn’t even mention our country’s looming debt and deficits in the speech. Not once.
Milton Friedman said years ago that the ultimate measure of government was what it spent. By this account the administration has been a gut-wrenching failure.
The administration’s neglect of our nation’s financial health long precedes the president’s address. In 2017, when I was still a member of the House Budget Committee, I clashed with Mick Mulvaney, who was then the acting budget director, over the administration’s optimistic budget assumptions.
I said, flat out, that the budget was a lie. Its numbers could never materialize because it was wishful thinking. And time proved me right.
Some of my conservative friends, when I criticize the president, respond that a President Sanders would be even worse for the deficit. True — but that makes it all the more important for those of us on the right to vigorously challenge the president’s reckless financial path. If the left has abandoned all sense of fiscal discipline, we have to be the ones to talk numbers that most seem to have somehow forgotten.
Here are three things to ponder for those of us who believe in math, markets and sustaining the American dream.
First, despite the president’s words, financially we have never been as vulnerable as a country since the Great Depression and World War II. We have never run deficits this big in peacetime. What happens to them when the economy cools?
Even today, with low interest rates, the fastest-growing spending item for the federal government is interest on the national debt. Over the next 10 years, we are projected to move from spending about $400 billion in interest a year to about $1 trillion. That could amount to over $7 trillion in interest payments.
Second, such persistent debt will have enormous consequences for national security — it always does. The historian Paul Kennedy, in his book “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers,” argues that military might without healthy budgets to back it up leads to a hollow force, good on paper but unprepared to fight. I agree. We should all be worried by the fact that we will soon be spending more on interest than on our military.
We should also worry that foreign ownership of our debt has risen to 40 percent. If foreign ownership of one’s debt were the road to military or economic strength, then Zimbabwe and Argentina would be world powers.
Finally, our growing debt makes the American dream more elusive, and in doing so weakens us all. A trillion-dollar deficit is nothing more than a deferred tax bill for $1 trillion. For a country that was in part founded on the notion of no taxation without representation, how does this pilfering of future generations’ wealth possibly make sense? Our children, and their children, will have fewer and fewer life choices and chances, thanks to our profligate spending.
Too many fellow conservatives, and the Republican Party at large, have chosen to ignore this mounting crisis out of fealty to President Trump. If Charles MacKay were alive today, he would add another chapter to his book, about today’s financial amnesia.
It’s a mistake that each one of us must work to correct, because it’s our future that hangs in the balance.
Mark Sanford is a former candidate for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination and a former Republican representative from South Carolina.