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With great debt comes great responsibility—and great danger

Jordan J. Ballor | In the long run, our children and grandchildren will pay the price of our profligacy

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks to the House Financial Services Committee about the debt limit. Al Drago/Pool via Associated Press

With great debt comes great responsibility—and great danger
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Among the crises we face today is a short-term political fight over a long-term economic problem. Short of a major reversal of what we expect from our elected officials, America is destined to see crippling government debt as part of our national identity.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has warned Congress that without action to raise the federal debt limit, the government faces the possibility of default and the reduction of social benefits. Since the end of July, the Treasury Department has been working to maintain governmental payments, but without new authorization to borrow more money, the secretary will soon be out of options.

Late on Oct. 7, the Senate passed a measure to extend the debt ceiling to Dec. 3. But, warns Yellen, “we expect Treasury would be left with very limited resources that would be depleted quickly. It is uncertain whether we could continue to meet all the nation’s commitments after that date.”

Although the question of the debt ceiling is closely related to government spending, and particularly to questions of new government spending, such as the proposed $3.5 trillion infrastructure and social policy package, it is conceptually distinct from other current challenges. Raising the debt ceiling is not in the first place about keeping the government from shutting down or about making room for new spending. The debt ceiling is instead about getting approval from Congress to allow the government to borrow more to pay for what it has already spent or committed to spend. In this way, the debt ceiling debate is fundamentally backward-looking: It is a question of whether the federal government will do what is necessary to follow through on promises and commitments it has already made.

Short-termism dominates our political landscape today, and the recurring debates over the debt ceiling are prime examples. And while quick action is necessary to raise the debt ceiling, such measures will only add to our challenges in the future if there is no longer-term, principled perspective governing political action. The economist John Maynard Keynes once quipped, “In the long run we are all dead.” His point was that an argument for a longer time horizon in forming economic policy can paralyze necessary action in the short term.

From the Christian perspective, however, death is not the last word. In the long run, we are all raised from the dead and will be subject to divine judgment. And there are also generations that will live and die following those living today, God willing. It is precisely these kinds of longer-term perspectives that can help reorient and reform our political and economic culture. And this kind of change is desperately needed. Unfortunately, American political culture today is toxic, and our politicians across the political spectrum are captivated by a crippling form of short-term thinking.

The $28.5 trillion in federal debt on the books today should be a sobering reminder of what selfish political culture creates. Instead of statesmen, we elect politicians. Instead of faithful stewards, we elect irresponsible spendthrifts. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we undermine political virtue and yet expect faithful representatives.

The only sustainable way to address governmental debt responsibly is to shift our expectations radically. We have to vote our convictions. Instead of looking for federal spending to solve all of our problems, we need to rediscover federalism and the virtues of self-government. That will require us to cultivate virtue, both in public and in private.

For the coming weeks and months, we will all be subject to furious rhetoric about the irresponsibility of those on both sides. And what will end up happening is what always happens—the politicians will raise their own credit limit. They lack the courage to confront the reality of our national debt. Their neglect is immoral. They are endangering the nation’s future—again.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of First Liberty Institute, and the associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.


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