Lewis adds that the debt has several meanings. “When people pile up debts they will find difficult and perhaps even impossible to repay, they are saying several things at once,” he wrote last year in Vanity Fair. “They are obviously saying that they want more than they can immediately afford. They are saying, less obviously, that their pres¬ent wants are so important that, to satisfy them, it is worth some future difficulty. But in making that bargain they are implying that, when the future difficulty arrives, they’ll figure it out.”
The problem is that you can’t just “figure out” $16.4 trillion. It’s more money than any entity has ever owed. Luckily, since our government (unlike a mortal) never has to die and go away, it never has to completely pay off its debt. But it does need to show it’s serious about paying down some debt, so those with money to loan will believe they’re likely to get repaid and won’t insist on higher interest rates.
At the same time, we need to consider the bigger problem.
Our government’s debt isn’t simply a matter of overspending. “The fiscal brokenness of America is merely a symptom,” author Mark Steyn said on C-Span this year. “What is horrible about big government is not that it debauches a nation’s finances. Ultimately, it corrodes the soul of a people.” By promising to “give” people social programs such as health care or food stamps without requiring any work or commitment in return, the government creates a dependent class that needs Uncle Sam to maintain its lifestyle.
So the question is: Are Americans too far down the road to corrosion already? Lewis hints we may be. He notes that in 2005, Californians voted on four referenda to limit the size and scope of state government.
“All four propositions addressed, directly or indirectly, the state’s large and growing financial mess. All four were defeated; the votes weren’t even close.” Lewis writes. “[L]egislators now knew that the people who had elected them to behave exactly the way they were already behaving were not going to undermine them when appealed to directly. The people of California might be irresponsible, but at least they were consistent.”
Is the same thing true nationwide? The good news, and maybe bad news, is that we may find out in November.