The current debate over the national debt and the potential for it to crash the economy right before summer starts is, frankly, funny. Not “tee-hee ha ha’’ funny but funny in that anyone believes the base arguments being put forth by some newly converted debt zealots in the U.S. House.
Now, the debt is a serious issue. We’re spending around 8 percent of the budget just to service it every year. We’ve had the luxury of interest rates hovering around the non-existent mark for quite a while that kept debt service from rising higher. But those days are gone, maybe for good.
So, yes, we need to pay down the debt. But the solutions being offered definitely leave defense spending off the table and likely leave Social Security and a lot of health care spending off as well (and no, those aren’t entitlements, we pay taxes for them). What’s left of the budget elephant is a couple of toenails and there isn’t any way trimming them is going to bring the debt down in any serious fashion.
There’s another factor about the lack of seriousness among the latest round of budget hawks, and we’ll get to that in a bit.
First, let’s look at how we got here, and how we’ve solved this problem in the past.
The U.S. was in a little thing called World War II back in the 1940s, and winning that war meant building things like planes and tanks and aircraft carriers, and that cost money. And that meant debt.
A booming post-war economy helped bring down the WWII debt without much effort. The sources of federal revenues were different back in those days. According to the Tax Foundation in FY 1954 the pie was 42.4 percent individual income taxes, 30.3 percent corporate taxes, 10.3 percent social insurance and retirement receipts, 14.3 percent excise taxes and 2.7 percent “other.’’
Fast-forward to 2019 and the numbers were 50 percent individual taxes, 7 percent corporate taxes, 36 percent payroll taxes and 8 percent excise, estate and other taxes. Now, the big picture is more complicated, as what is a defined as a corporation has changed a lot over the years. But what is an individual hasn’t, aside from Mitt Romney’s “corporations are people too.’’ And the top rate for individuals after WWII was more than 90 percent. LBJ knocked that down to around 70 percent and Ronald Reagan dropped it to 50 percent and then 28 percent by the time he left office.
And in his time in office the debt ballooned, so maybe there’s a connection there. And as for the late '40s and '50s, despite the high top tax rate, there were still plenty of incredibly wealthy people, although we’ll concede they weren’t wealthy enough to be shooting themselves into space left and right. (Also, U.S. rockets had a tendency to blow up in that era, so there’s that).
So now let’s get to the point of this article by jumping forward to the year 2000. Efforts to tighten the budget had paid off, and the country had a realistic chance of erasing the debt in a decade. So, what happened?
The PEEPhole happened, that’s what. Deficit hawks, suddenly and probably unexpectedly confronted with a pile of surplus money, went the popular route: “That money belongs to THE PEEPhole! The PEEPhole know what’s best to do with their own money and we should give it back to the PEEPhole!”
Politically popular? You betcha. The PEEPhole loved it. Remember those checks coming in the mailbox for $600 and $300? Those were swell. They were part of George Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut, a lot which of went to folks who would have been just fine without it. Those were swell. They were part of George Bush’s $1.35 trillion tax cut, a lot of went to folks who would have been just fine without it. The U.S. Treasury wound up having to borrow money to cover the tax rebate checks.
And so, we come at last to today in the Year of Our Lord 2023. Deficit hawks are at it again, threatening default as they did in 2011 and 2013.
Now, a lot of those hawks were just fine with President Donald Trump grabbing the debt tree and giving it a good hard shake for his round of tax cuts, so the new obsession with debt is … curious.
But let’s say they get a deal that ends with a surplus – and that’s a big if – does anyone really think we won’t see these carnival barkers rear up on their hind legs and start braying about “the PEEPhole’’ and how they deserve their money back?
And how that argument will logically turn to how the “PEEPhole’’ at the top, when they’re not in low-earth orbit, are paying the most and need to be refunded the most?
It’s an old argument that sounds logical and is very appealing to the rest of us who are having trouble paying for a car or a dozen eggs and will get a little relief. In practice, well… let’s play around with the clock one last time, turning it back to 1932:
“The money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes that it would trickle down to the needy. Mr. Hoover was an engineer. He knew that water trickles down. Put it uphill and let it go and it will reach the driest little spot. But he didn’t know that money trickled up. Give it to the people at the bottom and the people at the top will have it before night, anyhow. But it will at least have passed through the poor fellow’s hands.”
Will Rogers was right 91 years ago about the yet-to-be-coined “trickle-down theory.” He was right about a lot of things when it comes to human nature.
He’d get a hoot out of the current debt showdown and the players involved.
And he’d wonder why the “PEEPhole’’ elected so many of those loons.
Jim Buchanan is a longtime mountain journalist and author.