Missing the Point – In Government We Do Not Trust

The imagery of our seat of government, as viewed at sunrise from the reflecting pool, is impressive, some would say majestic, almost surreal.  I like to think that our founders, were they to stop back to see how things are going, would be pleased by the view and with what the land of free they envisioned has accomplished.

Are we perfect?  Far from it.  To put it mildly, freedom, democracy, and capitalism are a hot mess if ever there was one.  We are and will forever be a very mixed bag of people trying to figure our collective selves out, to agree on what is the good and right thing to do, and then make it happen.

One of the most interesting things about us is that we question everything.  No exceptions.

We clearly don’t trust the government, not in general and most certainly not the federal government.  We are a federation of states.  United States, hence the name of the place, but a federation nonetheless.  States that have a great deal of leeway in how their governments provide services to their residents.

Our distrust of government runs deep and seeps throughout every facet of our special brand of capitalism, the engine that powers the world’s leading economy.

How do we know this?  Know that we don’t trust our government?  It’s simple…

For one thing, we routinely allow our federal government to spend trillions of dollars more than it takes in from personal and corporate taxes.  The current national debt is over $34 trillion.  To give you a sense of how large that number is, the Gross Domestic Product of the United States in 2022 was only $25.4 trillion.  Interest on the national debt in fiscal 2023 was $658 billion. That’s right.  Out of the taxes collected in 2023, $658 billion right off the top went to paying interest on the national debt.

In fact, to the extent that we’re already spending more than we are collecting in taxes, we’re borrowing money to pay the interest on our national debt.  More tax revenues are spent to repay the principal we owe – principal payments that are in addition to the interest we pay.  And then we borrow even more than the principal we’ve repaid which is why total national debt keeps growing.  Financially, we’ve dug ourselves into a hole, in which not even the wealthiest rabbit can afford to live.

Incurring debt in an emergency makes perfectly good sense.  In an economic downturn or for national defense, for example, when we need more money to fund essential services and protect our country than tax revenues can cover, but that’s not what’s happening.  It’s not as if we borrow sometimes when there’s no other choice, but then pay those borrowed funds back out of surplus collections later.  No.  We just keep borrowing, increasingly to cover the debt service on the debt we already have.

Needless to say, maintaining national debt at its current and ever-growing levels, on a continuing basis, is nuts and not sustainable.  So why are we doing it?

The simple answer is not that Congress lacks the courage to take the political risk of raising personal and corporate taxes to necessary levels.  That’s true of course, but let’s ask ourselves why asking our people to cover the costs of their government is a political problem in the first place.  The answer?  It’s because people don’t trust the government to spend their money wisely.  By “wisely,” I mean for government-funded products and services that we, the people, value.

Simply put, the public, properly so, sees the taxes it pays as the price of goods and services its government provides.  “How will my life be better if I let you raise my taxes?  I’m going to give you money.  What are you going to do for me and my family in return?”  It’s a reasonable question.  Unfortunately, the government’s response is basically, “Trust me.  We’re professionals.  We know what we’re doing.”  Really?

Now add to this distrust of Washington the natural selfishness of our species.  “You want more of  my money to pay for the goods and services that you think I need?  Leaving me with less money to spend on everything else.  …Are you kidding?  Get the money you need from the corporations and super-rich that aren’t paying their taxes and maybe…  maybe we’ll talk then.  Like that’s ever gone a happen.”

And that’s why we’re $34+ trillion in debt.  It’s because the Executive Branch keeps suggesting and Congress keeps approving expenditures that are trillions of dollars more than the government is collecting and doing it without justifying the incurring of all this debt to their constituents.  To you and me.  And that’s got to stop.

As you know, there are other developed established democracies in the world where tax collections as a percent of GDP are significantly higher than they are here, but where the government funds college education and universal health care.  We don’t do that.  In the United States, people have to make their own financial arrangements for college education.  Likewise for health services.  In the United States, the extent and quality of government-provided services varies from state to state and, within states, from county to county.  Generally speaking in the United States, the more money you make, the better educated, the healthier and safer you are.  And the longer you live.

Can you imagine the American people letting Congress raise taxes to fund additional services that included college education and universal health care?  All inclusively?  For everyone, regardless of the state where they live or their household income?  No matter how much sense it would make for all of us to have a healthier and better-educated population?

Can you imagine Americans paying for all the government services we consume on a balanced budget basis?!  With a surplus to pay off our existing national debt?  Of course not.

Why aren’t we willing to raise taxes to ensure a balanced budget?  Because it’s our money and we don’t trust our government to spend it wisely, on our behalf.  What can we do about it?  We can do away with private campaign financing so that our elected officials are only beholden to all their constituents, equally.  We can demand more and better information about precisely how our tax dollars are being spent.  And we can withhold our support for candidates of both parties unwilling to commit to responsible fiscal management based on a realistic balanced budget concept.

And what if we don’t do these things and more to get our national debt under control?  “After all, we’re a country.  It’s not the same as when a family continuously spends more money than it makes.”  …Sorry to be the one to tell you but, fundamentally, yes, it is.  And the consequences of long-term fiscal mismanagement can be even more catastrophic for everything generations of Americans have built and hold dear.  Anyone or political party that believes otherwise is missing the point. Big time.

According to USA Today “Fact Check,” President Abraham Lincoln made the following statement in January 1838 during a speech in Springfield, Illinois…

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves, be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” 

Wow.  Serious words, aren’t they?  This is the actual quote that is sometimes misstated “America will never be destroyed from the outside.  If we lose our freedom, it will be because we have destroyed ourselves from within.”

Examples of potential internal threats include, among others, the profound loss of integrity and purpose within the Republican party as instigated by its far-right and Donald Trump, fiscal irresponsibility on the part of our Congress and Executive Branch, and a general mistrust of government which is the subject of this op/ed, increasing concentration of extreme wealth and a persistent lack of equal opportunity among our countrymen and women based on their ethnicity and wealth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.