Just a couple weeks ago, the Congressional Budget Office released data showing that the country's long-term fiscal situation is dire. In large part due to unexpected spending increases owing to the crisis brought on by the novel coronavirus, the United States’s debt is now on track to exceed its gross domestic product (GDP) by next year — essentially meaning that we will owe more than we produce in a single year. Just thirty years from now, the country’s debt is projected to be nearly double its GDP.
By any metric, that’s a bad fiscal situation to be in and lawmakers ought to be working to fix it. But in the first presidential debate, the country’s debt barely received a passing mention. Though the debate was notably lacking in substance more generally, one would still think the topic of how best to lift the country out of this fiscal hole would at the very least merit a significant discussion from the presidential candidates.
The words “debt” and “deficit” were used two times each during the debate. “Debt” was used once by President Trump to refer to debts carried over from the Obama presidency, and once by Vice President Biden in the context of the phrase “a debt of gratitude.” Both usages of the word “deficit” were by Biden, each time referring to trade deficits, not fiscal deficits.
And the non-substantive nature of the debate is no excuse for the omission. Discussions of the economy made up a substantial portion of the debate, with topics ranging from taxes to manufacturing to the economic impact of lockdowns. It’s certainly true that the debate should have been more informative to the American public on many other topics too, but there was plenty of room for the national debt to come up.
The truth, of course, is that neither Trump nor Biden have made fixing the national debt a cornerstone of their policy platforms because addressing the problem will necessitate uncomfortable sacrifices. Addressing out-of-control entitlement spending will require program changes that no politician is eager to propose.
By the decade starting in 2041, spending on Social Security and the major health care programs alone (namely Medicare, Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program) will be roughly equal to the federal government’s two most significant income sources, individual income taxes and payroll taxes, and nearly equal to total revenues. All the other elements of a national budget, including defense and infrastructure, will have to be paid for with yet more debt absent serious reforms. That’s not even considering the cost of servicing the country’s massive debt liability, which will only increase as the amount of debt does.
Of course, there are solutions to these issues. If Congress had the political will to act now, the fiscal problems that future taxpayers will face could be ameliorated instead of making them worse.
But this last debate was a reminder that politicians are not eager to stake their political aspirations on the difficult work of debt reduction. Only if taxpayers hold them accountable by demanding policy solutions can encourage them to start the process of securing our fiscal future.