The national debt: economics and the constitution


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“I regard a good budget as among the noblest monuments of virtue,” President Calvin Coolidge once said.

Today, the largest domestic-policy issue is government spending and the escalating debt and deficits. The national debt is currently at the $14 trillion mark, and the federal government is running budget deficits in the trillions. A $1.5 trillion budget deficit is being projected for 2011 if spending is not reduced, and President Obama’s budget proposal calls for $3.7 trillion in spending while failing to address the fiscal crisis.

The heart of the problem is uncontrolled government spending — not just over “pump-priming” Keynesian economic programs, but also entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The unfunded liabilities for these programs are estimated to be $60 trillion to $100 trillion. This does not include the financial burden of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is projected to add additional costs to the federal budget.

During his State of the Union address, Obama called for a domestic discretionary spending freeze, but he also called for renewed “investment” in the economy by labeling it our “Sputnik moment.” Congress will also be confronted this spring with the debt issue, and it will have to decide whether or not to raise the debt limit. With the national debt and escalating deficits, Congress cannot allow the nation to default — but at the same time, the current path is not sustainable for the United States. In order to avoid a potential catastrophic financial crisis, the federal government must cut spending and reform entitlements.

This is crucial not only to solve the fiscal emergency but also restore the national economy.

Reducing government spending, cutting tax rates, and eliminating unnecessary regulations is the needed policy formula to not only bring economic prosperity but also resolve the unemployment problem. A number of policy ideas have been put forward to bring federal spending under control, including a renewed effort to offer a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap,” and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul’s plan to cut $500 billion from the budget. These are in addition to other proposals, including that of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles debt commission, which is a good starting point in addressing spending and entitlement reform.

The debate over government spending has both economic and Constitutional implications. This debate is also between two philosophies of government. Historically, the policies of reducing government spending, lowering tax rates, and reducing regulations have led to periods of economic expansion. These were the policies that were utilized by former Presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan. All three were committed to fighting for and restoring Constitutional limited government.

Their policies produced periods of economic prosperity.

John Hendrickson is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute, a Mount Pleasant-based nonprofit research group. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Public Interest Institute.

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