So, how did we get to here?
“You load 16 tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.” — Tennessee Ernie Ford
Of all the famous characters produced by this country in its storied history, the one most needed in Washington right now might be Betsy Ross, because things are coming apart at the seams.
A largely do-nothing Congress, a president awash in scandal and last week we learned the one thing they did combine to do —pass and sign into law tax cuts while at the same time increasing spending — will result in a $1 trillion budget deficit in 2020.
That’s a trillion dollars in the hole in a single year.
The result of lo, these many years of running annual deficits is a national debt of $15 trillion and growing.
A trillion, by the way, is a thousand billion, and a billion is a thousand million. I sometimes think that part of the problem is that these numbers are so big the average person really has a hard time wrapping his or her head around them. I certainly do.
But what we from time to time refer to as a “budget crisis” didn’t occur overnight.
Rather, its roots were firmly planted more than a half-century ago.
What is today’s fiscal nightmare is resultant of a 50-year dream — Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.”
After passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — noble endeavors both — Johnson quite famously declared “war on poverty” in America. In so doing, the United States government for the first time in its history attempted to define ethnic distinctions about its population. One was no longer American; he was hyphenated-American.
And having so done, the 88th and 89th congresses simultaneously declared that as matter of law, U.S. citizens were entitled to benefits because of their hyphens.
It was the birth of what we now call entitlement programs — Medicaid, legal aid, food assistance, housing assistance and the rest of what was righteously intended to be a social safety net. (In retrospect, it may also have been the beginning of the tribalism so evident in contemporary politics.)
It was what then-secretary of what was then Health, Education and Welfare John Gardner called “a vending machine concept of social change. You put in a coin and out comes a piece of candy. If you have a social problem, you pass a law and out comes the solution.”
And since there were a lot of problems, a lot of solutions were required. All of that candy required a lot of coins.
What we now euphemistically refer to as “transfer payments” have since increased geometrically. One of the things about handing out pieces of candy is everybody’s got a sweet tooth.
According to a 2015 report from the Census Bureau, 52.2 million, or 21.3 percent of the population received some form of means-tested government assistance each month. (Throw in the individual-participatory programs of Social Security and Medicare and that percentage then approaches fully half of the nation’s 300-plus million citizens.)
And absent any dedicated funding source, in any real fiscal sense, things got out of hand.
For quite some time now (with the exception of a couple of years during the Clinton presidency), the United States government has been unable to collect enough in taxes to cover what it pays out. (Of course, waging seemingly perpetual war while cutting taxes at the same time hasn’t helped a bit, either).
This has led to ever-increasing federal borrowing and the payment of interest upon interest to the holders, foreign and domestic, of the debt. In layman’s terms, the United States government has been and remains in a sort of self-perpetuated hock.
Some economists maintain that is sustainable; others sharply disagree, arguing that a day of reckoning lies somewhere ahead. I’m inclined to agree with the latter.
Quite simply, the promises of the Great Society have become promises which the government can no longer solvently keep, but promises which politically those in charge of it dare not breech.
Another thing about handing out candy is folks tend to get mighty mad if you quit.
Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society rather nobly sought to rid the country of its most worrisome societal vermin. Succeeding in some ways, if not in others, but the economic repercussions of our 50 years of rat killing have yet to be fully felt.
The piper has yet to be paid and when his bill comes due, watch out.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.