Why raising the debt ceiling is an especially revealing moment in our democratic politics.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Donald Trump’s deal with the Democrats to raise the debt ceiling for three months and fund $15 billion in disaster relief has delighted the Dems and infuriated Republicans. “Trump got rolled!” was the refrain, said in disgust by one side and exultation by the other, since the Dems gave up nothing for the deal. The president seemed to rub salt in the Republicans’ wounds when he called the Senate minority leader and House minority leader “Chuck and Nancy.” The old NeverTrump claim that Trump is neither a true Conservative nor a Republican appeared prescient.
Leaving all that aside, the move probably will satisfy a majority of voters. The vote in the House before the meeting was 316-90, suggesting that the most democratic branch of government, and hence most accountable to the people, had an idea that such a move is what the people want. Later, the presumably more sober and judicious Senate agreed with an 80-17 vote. The old lesson of democracy is still valid: politicians succeed by giving people what they want. Ignoring vox populi is a surefire way to get tossed from office.
Raising the debt ceiling is an especially revealing moment in our democratic politics. The problem is critical: Common sense and simple mathematics tell us our runaway debt, deficits, and entitlement spending will in a few decades hit our economy like a Cat 5 hurricane. But the electorate’s fondness for these programs makes them nearly untouchable.
Nearly two-thirds of the annual budget goes to “mandatory” spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on $20 trillion of debt, along with some of the 83 social welfare programs. This spending will continue to grow as the population ages and interest costs return to normal levels. Social Security illustrates the problem. Its unfunded liability for the next 75 years is $12.5 trillion, an increase of 166% from just ten years ago. Social Security is losing money every year, $54 billion in 2016. In ten years that deficit will reach $215 billion in real dollars. Today, the “trust fund” financing the program is made up of Treasury debt, which means the feds have to borrow more money or raise taxes when the bonds are cashed in to pay recipients. It’s sort of like using one credit card to make a payment on another.
If left unreformed, programs like Social Security and Medicaid will hit the demographic wall: right behind the 75 million Boomers are nearly 76 million Millennials. Increasing longevity means that benefits for more people will be paid out for more years. We can’t grow ourselves or tax ourselves out of this looming disaster. Programs have to be reformed (higher employee contributions and retirement ages, and means-testing benefits), and more importantly, cut.
This problem is well known, amply documented, often decried, and seldom addressed meaningfully. Deficit and debt hawks blame politicians for pandering to the people, especially Democrats who think the “rich” don’t “pay their fair share,” and have secret vaults of money they’ve unjustly finagled from the people, even though the collective wealth of the country’s some 540 billionaires couldn’t fund the federal government for one year. Weak-kneed Republicans go along, afraid of their constituents and the progressive media that will Scrooge them royally every time a modest reform––such as cutting just the rate of increased spending for a program––is put on the table.
All true, but in a democratic republic the most important voice it doesn’t do to ignore is the voice of the people. And polling shows that over the last eight years public interest in, and talk about the debt and deficits by politicians and media, have decreased, with about 5% of voters putting debt and deficits as their most important priority. As FiveThirtyEight put it, “In 2016, talk of the deficit and debt, such as it is, elicits only a shrug.” Last week’s Congressional vote, with its overwhelming majorities in both houses to raise the debt ceiling without any reforms, confirms that most politicians take seriously the voters’ indifference and fear their wrath. And so does the electoral success of Donald Trump, who promised not to touch Social Security, and talked about a trillion-dollar “stimulus” program that will necessarily be paid for by increased borrowing.
Today the people are generally left off the hook whenever we debate entitlement policy. But for 2500 years, antidemocrats have harped on the short-sighted self-interest of the voting masses. Aristophanes routinely castigated the ignorant Athenians who supported any demagogue promising them more of other people’s money. In the Knights, a character scolds Demos, the personified democratic masses, by pointing out that if one politician proposes spending public money on warships, and the other on state pay to citizens, “the pay man will walk all over the trireme man.” Edmund Randolph, governor of Virginia, at the Constitutional convention orated, “It is a maxim which I hold incontrovertible, that the power of government exercised by the people swallows up the other branches. None of the [state] constitutions have provided sufficient checks against the democracy.” In 1808 the last of the old antidemocrats, Fisher Ames, grumped that the “low vulgar” people are “so much less manageable by their demagogues,” that “we expect that our affairs will be long guided by courting the mob.” Buy off the people or face their wrath.
Even America’s most important foreign fan, Alexis de Tocqueville, admitted this problem with the short-sighted citizens of a democracy. Given politicians’ biennial electoral accountability to the voters, a “clear perception of the future, founded upon judgment and experience . . . is frequently wanting in democracies. The people are more apt to feel than to reason; and if their present sufferings are great, it is to feared that the still greater sufferings attendant upon defeat will be forgotten.” Tocqueville’s point about foreign policy holds true for domestic as well: the immediate pain of cutting spending and paring back entitlements outweighs the much greater future fiscal disasters our current policies guarantee.
Our recent political history is filled with examples that denigrating the people’s fondness for redistributed wealth is a political dead-end. Remember Mitt Romney’s leaked “47%” remark in 2012? Speaking the truth that nearly half of Americans receive some form of government transfer allowed the fat cat Democrats to paint Romney as a mean-spirited, out of touch plutocrat, and themselves as noble tribunes of the people. Or remember what they did to Paul Ryan in 2011, when his proposals to reform Medicare for future beneficiaries were met with an ad depicting a Ryan look-alike pushing granny off the cliff? The Dems liked the ad so much they reprised it this year in their attacks on the Republicans’ failed reform of Obamacare, another big-government redistribution of wealth also headed for bankruptcy.
This toxic fallout from fiscal conservatives’ efforts to start fixing the debt, deficit, and entitlement mess always ends up in Republican demonization and eventual capitulation. How else did we get the 2011 Budget Control Act that ended another debt-ceiling crisis? Half the trillion dollars in cuts were imposed on defense, while the biggest drivers of debt and deficits, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, were left untouched. To paraphrase Aristophanes, the entitlement man walked all over the defense man. And the Dems still trashed Republicans as selfish skin-flints indifferent to the suffering of the masses. And the deficit? It remains unreformed, and is projected to balloon by $8.6 trillion in ten years, reaching 5% percent of GDP.
Trump’s deal with the Democrats illustrates as well this iron law of democracy. He knows that using the debt ceiling as leverage for reform often threatens a shut-down of the government, delayed Social Security checks, and more attacks on Republican meanness. What makes this current deal a political no-brainer is the ongoing hurricane disasters requiring federal money to fix what looks like the most expensive natural disaster in modern American history. Squabbling over some far away fiscal crisis about which most voters know nothing, while the news channels broadcast 24/7 real-time images of suffering and dying fellow Americans, is the mother of all bad optics.
Too many Republicans think like progressives: any problem can be solved by policies crafted by “experts” in command of all the data and theory, and possessing sufficient coercive power. But human nature is still as unpredictable and irrational as it ever was, which means that the human factor will always blow up any equation. Yes, pundits and politicians make convenient, and often justified, scapegoats, but we the people ultimately decide, and we often put our own irrational passions and selfish interests ahead of future well-being. Trump and the majority of Republican Congressmen seem to have learned this lesson from the Democrats, who are masters of giving the people what they want and demonizing those who try to give the people what the country needs.
Perhaps H.L. Mencken was right: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” Let’s hope that when the public fisc gets it good and hard, we Americans will do the right thing.