The USA’s national debt has become a talking point recently, as commentators start to realize exactly what we’re storing up for future generations – and, if we don’t halt its seemingly inexorable acceleration fast enough, for ourselves. Right now the federal government is spending more than it earns to the tune of about $550 billion every year. There’s no mystery about where this trend is taking us – the Federal reserve are open about the fact that this “improvement” in the situation (for a couple of years after the 2008 crash the deficit was over $1 trillion a year, and by that abysmal standard today’s spending counts as an improvement) should last until about 2020, at which point steadily rising social security and Medicare costs will push the debt curve back up again.
It’s obvious to anyone with a grasp on reality that this can’t go on. Sadly that category doesn’t seem to include most of our elected representatives. Ever since Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold back in 1971, removing the reality check on how much money the government could print, there’s been nothing to stop Congress and the White House from just borrowing whatever they needed to fund their pet projects. Even in the 1980s the US deficit was skyrocketing, at the same time as Mrs. Thatcher in the UK was managing to eliminate the British deficit entirely and actually start to repay the principal on her country’s debt. Even more remarkable, she did this at the same time as expanding the health service and modernizing the armed forces. The key to that was she approached the problem with a housewife’s eye for smart budgeting, instead of with a shovel to get that pork out of the barrel at the maximum possible speed.
The American people won’t tolerate the sort of cuts that would be necessary to bring the deficit down to a sustainable level. The population is aging, and that means nobody’s going to vote for a reduction in social security. Elderly people have more health problems, so nobody with an eye on re-election is going to mess with Medicare either. There’s also no question of gutting the military, because the world isn’t getting any safer. What needs to change is the approach to how we get these things.
It’s a little known fact that the UK’s National Health Service costs just over half as much per citizen than Medicare does – but it provides health care for everyone, not just the over-65s. It’s far from perfect and probably not the model the USA wants to go for, but it does show that the government could get much better value for its money than it does now. The same goes for defense spending. The military’s new fighter jet, the F35, is years late and hundreds of billions over budget. It also isn’t very good. Nobody will pull the plug on the project though, because the manufacturers have made sure to scatter jobs related to the program through just about every congressional district. Trimming the debt, and even making sure our military gets a good plane, is less important than grabbing a share of federal funds.
The problem with this spending model is that short-term vote buying is prioritized over the future of the nation. Every congressman who fights for an overpriced DoD project in his home district is bringing closer the day when those planes will be grounded because we can’t afford to buy fuel. Everyone who angles for an inflated price for the latest medication is helping to guarantee that one day we won’t be able to afford aspirin. Unless the people who sign off on the USA’s budget start to think about the future, this nation doesn’t have one.