In case you missed it in the swirl of news that envelops us these days―after being shown data suggesting that the national debt “would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office,” President Trump reportedly said, “Yeah, but I won’t be here.”
Imagine a scenario where a president is told that war is looming, but said president dismisses the warning because he or she “won’t be here.” Imagine a leader who accepts all of the apocalyptic warnings about climate change, but concludes that the really bad stuff won’t happen until he’s out of office. For those who take generational theft seriously, this is a serious abdication of responsibility.
Worse still, according to Bob Woodward’s new book Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump has serious knowledge gaps where federal debt is concerned. In a conversation between Trump and the former director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, Trump proposed a solution for dealing with a potential increase in interest rates: “…borrow a lot of money, hold it, and then sell it to make money.” Cohen was reportedly “astounded at Trump’s lack of understanding” about what his proposed solution would mean. When Cohen cautioned that borrowing more “would increase the deficit and add to that debt,” Trump’s solution was to print money (not realizing that printing large amounts of money could lead to inflation).
For now, the U.S. economy is humming along, which (should it continue) will benefit Trump’s reelection chances. However, that belies the fact that the current debt is more than $21 trillion and that the Congressional Budget Office in June estimated that this debt will approach 100 percent of the GDP by 2028. In our personal lives, we eventually have to pay the bills. Will the party ever stop for America?
This scenario could theoretically be solved by raising taxes, growing the economy, and/or cutting spending. But because Trump won’t “be here,” he won’t go there.
National defense and entitlements account for, by far, the largest chunks of the national debt, and Trump has shown no signs of wanting serious reform in these areas. In fact, Trump seemed to benefit politically from eschewing an emerging conservative consensus favoring entitlement reform.
Complicating matters is that, according to The New York Times, “The federal government could soon pay more in interest on its debt than it spends on the military, Medicaid or children’s programs.”
What is more, even those areas with potential bipartisan agreement would come with a price tag. For example, one the few bipartisan policy ideas where Trump could conceivably work across the aisle would involve a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
It seems unlikely that this sort of deal would happen, but that has almost nothing to do with reservations about spending.
Back in 2002, then-Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly declared “deficits don’t matter.” Today’s version—a chilling new line reportedly uttered by the self-proclaimed “king of debt”—is even more concerning: Crushing debt doesn’t matter… to the president.
The truth is that some people argue that debt (the total amount we owe) and deficits (the annual difference between spending and revenue)--really aren’t that big of a deal. Some people argue that because America is the biggest economy in the world, and thus, the rules don’t apply to us.
Right or wrong, that’s much different from a president saying they don’t matter to me.
In 2010, when Barack Obama was president, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) warned that America was about to turn into Greece. In the 2012 vice presidential debate, Ryan declared, “We’ve got to tackle this debt crisis before it tackles us."
It was a line he was fond of repeating. But as Speaker of the House, Ryan didn’t tackle it, and—so far—it hasn’t tackled us. Moreover, based on current reports, we are probably still a few years away from being tackled. “The issue has just disappeared,” Democratic Senator Mark Warner told the New York Times. “There’s collective amnesia.”
Indeed, one of the lessons of Donald Trump’s election is that deficits don’t really matter to Republicans except as a rhetorical device—and that there is no constituency for the man who wants to “tighten the belt.” Austerity is for suckers. It’s much smarter (politically) to kick the can down the road.
As Brian Riedl observed in National Review, “For years, Republican leaders from Newt Gingrich to Paul Ryan to Mitt Romney called for modernizing Social Security and Medicare before they collapse under the weight of 74 million retiring Baby Boomers. Then Donald Trump won 88 percent of Republican voters—and the presidency—while pledging that “there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid.” Six months later, a Pew poll revealed that only 15 percent of Republicans support trimming Medicare, and only 10 percent support Social Security reform. (Democratic support is five and three percent, respectively.)”
In truth, experts are divided over the seriousness of this problem, though it would seem prudent to err on the side of caution. According to the Committee for Economic Development, the “consequences of an unsustainable debt could be anything from nothing happening at all in the best case to the end of US world leadership as we know it in the worst.”
In other words, maybe it won’t matter as much as the doomsayers say--or maybe it’ll be utterly cataclysmic.
Yeah, but Trump won’t be here.