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National Debt Erodes Public Trust

By Andrew L. Yarrow
June 5, 2008

Editor’s Note: Among the many challenges that will face the next U.S. administration is the national debt that has ballooned during George W. Bush’s presidency.

In this guest essay, author Andrew L. Yarrow argues that the rising debt has eroded American public confidence in government:

America’s $9.3-trillion-and-growing national debt rightly has been blamed for many economic ills that lurk on our nation’s horizon, but it also had the stealth effect of further eroding Americans’ waning belief in the benefits, efficacy and trustworthiness of government.

Many other, oft-mentioned factors – Vietnam, Watergate, anti-government rhetoric, and a 24/7 cycle of Washington scandals and blunders – have played a huge role in turning post-World War II pride in our government to present-day disdain for it.

At a time when roughly a quarter of Americans think that Washington is doing a good job, it is hard to remember that, during the days of Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy, the feds were leaders and public servants admired by the vast majority of the population.

Yet, a side effect of warp-speed debt growth, not mentioned in any warning label appended to the querulous tomes known as the U.S. budget, has been to push public esteem for government into ever-faster freefall. How has it done this?

Opinion research by Public Agenda and others has found the public to be livid about Washington leaders so unaccountable and irresponsible that, for most of the last generation, have been unable to balance its income and expenses, as any household is expected to do, or even to have on-time, straightforward, and honest budgets (or financial statements), as any self-respecting business is expected to do.

Watching Washington cut taxes and increase spending, when our finances are already deep in the red, while leaders claim with a straight face the mantle of fiscal probity is enough to make anyone blanch.

This macro-level political dishonesty is compounded by the myriad sleights-of-hand performed by the budgeters of Capitol Hill and the White House.

These include the tried-and-true practice of filching from the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for other government expenditures and conceal the true size of annual budget deficits. They also include the accounting legerdemain of perennially pushing present expenditures into future years and "off budget."

And what would any list of Washington’s fiscal honesty be without including the ever-popular subject of tens of thousands of "bridge to nowhere"-style pork-barrel projects slipped stealthily into broader spending bills?

Financial mismanagement and lying, indeed, go a long way toward diminishing public esteem for political leaders. But that is only part of the story.

The major drivers of growing national debt, aside from arguably too low taxes on some, are the voracious appetite of entitlement programs and interest on the debt itself. Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and smaller entitlement programs, plus interest payments account for about 63 percent of federal spending, up from 33 percent 40 years ago.

In a Newtonian budgetary world of equal and opposite actions, as such mandatory spending has soared since the 1960s, discretionary spending – what Congress and the President actually have control over – comparatively has wilted like an unwatered plant.

But there’s the rub. With so many broadly supported government services, and ever new and unpredictable public needs, the noose-like budgetary squeeze due to insufficient funds in the U.S. Treasury has meant that Americans increasingly feel that they are getting less and less of tangible value for their tax dollars.

With most taxpayer – and borrowed – money going into the vortex of mandatory spending, unbeknownst to most citizens, Americans feel like they are paying a lot on April 15, only to see highways clogged and deteriorating, workers’ livelihoods not being protected, global warming going unaddressed, schools failing, and sundry other failing public services.

The hidden culprit is this straitjacket on such "good" spending caused by the debt-producing effects of uncontrolled mandatory spending and insufficient revenues. Thus, Americans can justly accuse their leaders of taxing them too much and providing them with too little in visible, desired services.

Thus, as a "tsunami" of debt threatens to sink our economy and government, that same tsunami is also feeding a rising sea tide of cynicism and mistrust of America’s central democratic institutions.

If leaders and government are to be respected again, a big part of the solution lies with fiscal reform and debt reduction.

Andrew L. Yarrow, Washington director and vice president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan think tank, is a professor of U.S. history at American University and the author of Forgive Us Our Debts, a book about the causes, consequences, and cures for America’s national debt.

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