Who spent my $3,000?

Listen to the podcast segment "What's a trillion between friends?" from the September 12, 2018 episode

I have a hard time knowing what to call myself (politically) anymore. For a long time, I've liked "open-minded conservative", because I think it balances an interest in conserving what makes sense from the existing order with an open-mindedness to doing things differently when a better idea comes along.

But just like the word "liberal" went from meaning "someone who believes in Enlightenment values" to "left-wing", and now is being gobbled up by the alternative word "progressive", I'm not sure that people get the huge gap between "conservative" in the sense I've always understood it, and today's goulash of traditionalism, populism, nationalism, and reactionism that have tried to co-opt the name.

And it gets really hard to say when we're cruising full-bore for a disaster that's going to cost my family $12,000 a year.

I distill my general philosophy down to "make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business". Give me free-market capitalism, personal liberty, a sense of civic duty and responsibility to the future, and a work ethic that would make Benjamin Franklin proud.

It's tough to square that with the news that the Federal budget deficit will hit $1 trillion this fiscal year.

There are about 328 million people in the US. That makes a $1 trillion deficit equal to about $3,000 per person. For a family of four, that's $12,000 in overspending at the Federal level each year -- or about enough to buy you a Kia Rio.

I have a problem with that. Because government spending is part of how we count the economy that everyone's been crowing about -- GDP is C + I + G + NX. That's consumer spending, plus investment, plus government spending, plus net exports. And we're getting a lot of words about the importance of "net exports" that misleadingly focus on subtracting imports as if that's "hurting" the economy. Imports are subtracted because they're also counted in the other parts, and we don't want to measure what we didn't produce. It doesn't hurt us to import...that's just a matter of balancing the accounting.

But you know what we don't consider? Government deficit spending means we're borrowing and will have to pay it back. Plus interest. And if the deficit is $1 trillion on an economy that's about $20 trillion in size, that's no small matter of overspending.

So I worry. I worry that we're not cleaning up after ourselves. We're handing off a crisis-level of overspending to future taxpayers (including ourselves) who don't have a real vote in the matter. And it's not like we're fighting an existential crisis like a world war.

I worry that we're not making as much money as we think. The borrowing isn't going into building a new Eisenhower Interstate System or putting up a national grid of 5G data signals. The budget is mostly entitlement spending, defense spending, and service on the debt. A debt that's $21 trillion, if you count all of it. And a debt that doesn't explicitly include future obligations we've promised but haven't started to pay yet.

I worry that our choices to have too much fun today (without minding our business) mean we won't have as much fun tomorrow. And that should worry us all. But I'm not sure it does, because in almost every direction I turn, I hear that we should spend even more on someone's new pet project (like "Medicare for all" or "free" college) or try to manipulate the economy to fit someone's outdated idea of what constitutes a worthy job. (I'm talking about tariffs.)

For the cost of $12,000 a year, I think I could do a lot to invest in my children's future. I think I'd be better at it than the Federal government. And I don't think I should have to put up a fight today just to protect the interests of my family tomorrow. But there's a whole lot of inaction, cowardice, pandering, and excuse-making to go around. And I've even started hearing a generational argument that everyone has to grab whatever they can while they have the votes before the next generational wave comes to take it all away.

Someone, please tell me: What's conservative about any of this? And does anyone care what that means anymore?

 
Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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