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Living within our national means

Economy

I once knew a fellow with seemingly no awareness of the connection between the nice things he bought on credit (condo, Corvette, Bermuda vacation) and his resulting obligation to pay those debts. Bills were an annoying intrusion on his lifestyle. Debt collectors, like panhandlers, were people he avoided.

America has a similar debt problem. Leaving aside our credit card, college, and mortgage debt, the money our government owes on our behalf from spending more than it has taken in is now more than $16 trillion. President George W. Bush inherited a debt of $5 trillion. When President Barack Obama came to office it was $10 trillion. Our national debt is now 102 percent of our gross domestic product. That puts us in the same loser league with European calamities like Ireland, Italy, and Portugal.

Carrying some debt is fine. It’s a way of spreading out payment for a big-ticket item, like a house, over several or many years at a reasonable extra cost. It can also be a way of softening the impact of a sudden large and necessary expenditure like a major car repair. But debts like these are acceptable only with a detailed and manageable plan for paying them off.

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But America’s endless annual deficit is not to finance improvements to our national home like new highways, or onetime national emergencies like World War II. We borrow to finance the constantly expanding demands of our national lifestyle. It’s like borrowing regularly against the value of your house for daily expenses while assuming and hoping that its value will ever increase.

As a nation, we are essentially “living beyond our means,” and that is stealing, a violation of God’s Eighth Commandment. It is theft knowingly to borrow beyond your means to repay. We are doing this when we continually expand our deficit financing knowing that it’s moving us dangerously close to national insolvency. It is theft to borrow in the knowledge that someone else will be forced to pay the debt. We are doing this when we run up a bill in our generation and leave it for the next generation to pay. Spending these borrowed funds on the poor does not justify the theft. It is phony generosity to help the needy with someone else’s money.

To this Eighth Commandment concern we can add leaving ourselves vulnerable to national adversaries like China by borrowing heavily from them. This endless and mushrooming debt burden also compromises our government’s ability to fulfill its most basic functions like national defense.

My friend had a personal debt crisis because he was childishly irresponsible and shortsighted. As a people, we have the same problem. On top of this, our political leaders in both parties have been shrewdly buying our votes with our own money (or line of credit) and we have been naively happy to reward them. But as our debt levels enter the danger zone, it is time for us all to grow up, make sober choices about our spending priorities, and start living within our means.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.

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