Rodin's 'The Thinker''
Debt Ceiling Crisis 2023
Part of Thoughts Updated Tuesday evening, May 30th, 2023
"The death of compromise has become a threat to our nation as we confront crucial issues such as the debt ceiling and that most basic of legislative responsibilities: a federal budget. At stake is the very meaning of what had once seemed unshakable: 'the full faith and credit' of the U.S. government." -Deborah Tannen

Regarding my "Thoughts" area:

In this area I offer resources and thoughts / observations in the hope of providing improved understanding / context of subjects which are of current interest. Some thoughts might even help to reframe how we perceive a topic, ideally bringing about improvement in resolution of the issue or at least handling thereof.

Disclaimer: Some of my views align with the right while other of my views align with the left, just as no party is without its problems in how they practice politics no party has a monopoly on proper concerns and even good ideas. Some of my views might even align with neither party. I myself don't identify with any established party and thus am not trying to create agitation in an 'us versus them' or 'my side is better than yours' manner. Rather I strive for a calm, rational, productive approach to moving forward, continuing to improve the 'human condition' as so many before us have strived and sacrificed to do. Undoubtedly you will disagree with some of my views or thoughts, some might even upset you, you have my apologies for that.


How did we wind up in this mess yet again?

Don't believe the framing of just now being the 'crisis point' for the debt ceiling, that is part of the artificial construction of the political brinkmanship. We have been in a crisis for over four months, arguably going back to December 2021, if not (far, far) longer. Do know that we are not about to nor have we just reached the current debt ceiling limit. We reached that point back on Thursday, January 19th, well over four months ago.

At the end of 2022 our leaders in Washington knew well that a debt ceiling 'crisis' was imminent, having been setup by the previous debt ceiling increase which occurred only a year before, on December 16, 2021. The timing of the previous increase was key to the setup, being less than eleven months prior to the 2022 elections. That December 2021 increase was arranged specifically to remove the issue until after the elections, part of the gamesmanship which has become the norm in dealing with the debt ceiling. Everyone in Congress knew they would have to deal with the issue of the debt ceiling again shortly after the 2022 elections. Did Congress take the issue seriously during the "Lame Duck" session when Democrats still controlled Congress and the posturing for the mid-term election was over? Bernie Sanders certainly urged doing so, commenting in a New York Times interview the week prior to the 2022 mid-term elections that addressing the debt limit during the post-election lame-duck session of Congress would be "a wise course of action. I think Democrats have got to be very, very strong in making it clear that Republicans cannot hold hostage the entire world economy in a desire to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid." But not much motion followed, and the Democrats punted on the issue, passing the buck to the next Congress which would feature a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The Democrats were under no illusion that the Republicans would cooperate without drama in raising the debt ceiling, yet they still didn't even try to perform the task themselves. Thus the stage was set for drama. (Why did the Democrats give up on raising the debt ceiling themselves? I believe the answer is seen in the fact that approval of a West Virginia pipeline is part of the debt ceiling deal, a hook to ensure that the Democrats vote unanimously for the deal.)

The need to deal with the debt ceiling being well known in advance, one would expect that our political leaders, those we elect to keep the country running smoothly, were thus ready and able to competently handle the debt ceiling issue without drama. After all, the process of raising the debt ceiling had become a regular part of the execution of the country's budgetary finances, have been done numerous times since the debt ceiling's inception in 1939. During just the twelve year span of the modern administrations of Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush the debt ceiling was raised a total of twenty-seven times without controversy. Such a carefree approach, at least under Republican administrations, still prevailed recently, with President Trump enjoying the then Republican-controlled Congress 'suspending' the debt ceiling three times without insisting on any notable changes to budgetary spending.

Then why the drama? Why only under Democratic Presidents? Surely if someone is truly concerned about the debt they would speak out no matter who is President, right? They would put country above party, right? The same would go for if they think this drama is ridiculous and unnecessary, putting country over party they would speak up due to the many ways in which the drama harms the country.

Would not all the time and energy lost to this drama performance be better spent addressing the actual problems facing our country, many of which have hindered America for years? Yes, the deficit, which feeds the debt, is one of them. Or so they keep telling us while voting for ever increasing spending for their favorite programs, with many also voting at the same time to cut revenues. That is a bad imbalance. Where has it gotten us? While the country has almost always been in debt, the size of the debt didn't reach the $1 trillion mark until October 1981, when the country was well over 200 years old. In the forty-plus years since then the national debt has ballooned to a staggering $31+ trillion.

Looking at that recent growth from the perspective of annual gross domestic product (GDP), which is the value created by the country's efforts in the production of goods and services, we see an alarming growth in the size of the debt. The value of the national debt hit a modern low of around thirty-percent of annual GDP in the early 1980's. Many view such a ratio as a good indicator of our ability to eventually pay down the debt. Recently the national debt has been over 120% of annual GDP. Such a high ratio of debt to GDP raises concern over the ability to eventually pay down the debt. (Interesting note: Federal spending as a portion of GDP is currently only 1.7% higher than the average under President Reagan, and the average government spending as a portion of GDP was the highest under President Reagan of any President from Carter through Obama. Source: Wikipedia page on Reaganomics.)

Why has the government been running deficits so long, and of such size for so long, that the national debt is now over $31 trillion? Certainly the problem doesn't seem to be getting any better. Recent budget deficits have been running around $1 trillion or more, growing in size along with the size of the economy the past forty-plus year. Budgets have also increased in size, growing from under $700 million to $5.8 trillion. As a percentage of the budget the deficits have slightly gotten worse, increasing from around 16.2% in President Reagan's early years to around 17.3% currently, not the general runaway growth many claim, at least in terms of percentage, but, definitely an issue in absolute size. Just as with any problem that is allowed to continue the effects add up. Even if the government suddenly achieved budget surpluses of $100 billion each year, which would be quite a miracle with current budgets running a deficit of over $1 trillion, it would take over 310 years to pay off the current national debt with those surpluses.

What can be done? Many of the problems that have plagued the country are a drag on the economy. If we start actually solving those problems, we can grow the economy and have to spend less on problems, a win all around for everyone, including the two dominant political parties. Beyond the government saving money with each problem area it solves, private charities that also work to address those problems can shift their resources to help address other problems, accelerating the overall resolution of the problems hampering America.

How do we actually solve the problems? We need to be able to drill down into the programs to determine why the money the government is spending is not having the intended impact in solving the problems. We need leaders who are interested in determining, and can understand, what structural flaws need to be addressed to get rid of these problems and how do we fix those flaws. We should not just be cutting or ending programs, that not only leaves problems in place, continuing the drag on the economy, but also extends the suffering of those affected by the problems. We can't pull the rug out from under the small business owner striving to start a business to achieve financial independence and provide jobs for others, or the farmer who only wants to be able to sell his crops / cattle at a fair price, or our sons and daughters dealing with the exorbitant cost of higher education as part of their hard work to establish a better life for their generation, or the veterans seeking medical and psychological care for the injuries and traumas they sustained while protecting us. Problems usually only get worse if ignored. Instead we need to finally put these problems to bed by being effective not only in mitigating the problems but also actually resolving them.

We need leaders interested in solving problems, not scoring political talking points so that they can remain in power. We need leaders who want to help all people and not just rile up people against 'them'. We need leaders who care about putting problems to rest instead of rehashing the same back-and-forth battles that have been going on for fifty years, or longer. We need to move forward as a country, not be stuck in the mud. We need leaders whose primary focus is doing the right thing, not staying in power.

Do we have those leaders? (I would suggest that at one point we had one of them as President. However that was a singular occurrence and at any point the leadership of our country is comprised of many people other than the President.)

Can we move forward with the leaders we have?

How did we wind up with our current leaders? (Teaser: I believe that George Washington tried to warn us.)

© 2023 Robert Andrew Lentz. All Rights Reserved.