Losing track of the zeroes
The national debt places an appalling burden on future generations
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This is the 25th in a series of classic columns (edited for space) by Joel Belz. Joel wrote this column for the Feb. 28, 2009, issue of WORLD, when the national debt was about $11 trillion. The debt is now about $33 trillion, or more than $98,000 per citizen.
The arrival of three of my young grandsons to visit for a few days would normally be the occasion of a good bit of delight. But when Levi, Isaiah, and Abel drove in with their parents from St. Louis last week, I found myself unable to look them in the eye.
My problem, of course, was that the news media had been telling us for a couple of weeks how much the new bills making their way through Congress were going to add to the national debt—and how our grandchildren were the ones who would be picking up the bill. Bad timing for a family get-together.
The math was damning. Start with the $700 billion bailout Congress had authorized last fall, even before the election. Add the almost $800 billion stimulus package approved this month. But don’t forget the $500 billion that Uncle Sam was already having to borrow just to balance this year’s operating budget. Those three figures total $2,000 billion—or $2 trillion dollars in new debt.
Now divide that $2 trillion by 300,000,000 Americans and you’ll discover that we’ve just added about $7,000 per person to our national debt. Just for Levi, Isaiah, and Abel, that’s $21,000 of new debt—which is quite a sum for boys who are only 7, 5, and not quite 2. I should note that none of the three yet has a job, which means their mom and dad will probably have to shoulder this burden for a while. Counting them, the family debt jumped by about $35,000. Just the interest on that amount is going to run over $100 a month.
It gets worse. Levi, Isaiah, and Abel are only three of my 15 grandchildren. With their parents (and one grandpa and one grandma), the total new debt incurred over the last few weeks adds up to $189,000. That’s the price of a house in many parts of the country. Sadly, our family incurred all this new debt, and there’s no house to show for it. In fact, I can’t point to anything we have to show for it.
Hold on, though, because it gets still worse. I could tell you that it gets worse because all this is brand-new debt—added to the $35,000 that each of my grandchildren owed before this mindless new round started. So their individual obligation is in fact jumping from $35,000 to $42,000—and their extended family obligation from $945,000 to $1,134,000.
But by now, if you’re like me, you’ve lost track of the zeros. And that is where things have especially gotten worse. The American population—from the president, down to the Wall Street bankers, and then all the way down to the rest of us—no longer has a clue what is going on with the economy. Even at the level of the intelligentsia, we have become functionally ignorant of how money works. Our leaders have taught us, and we have gullibly believed, that we could break all the basic rules and still have something big to enjoy ourselves and then to pass on to our grandchildren.
Nor am I just sitting here pointing my fingers at the bad guys. I am guilty on this front, and many of my friends are owning up as well. The world of evangelical Christians is little different from the secular world at large on this front.
And if it’s not embarrassing enough how skimpy our knowledge is, we tend not even to live up to that knowledge. We all know in theory, for example, how enslaving consumer debt has a tendency to be. But we wrap our lives in debt, glibly certain the rules will never apply to us.
Of course it matters how many zeros get tacked on to the debt soon to be inherited by the likes of Levi, Isaiah, and Abel. What matters a whole lot more is whether the rest of us come to our senses and find far better tools than any we’ve used so far to teach the next generation how to handle its money.
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