Not so very long ago, American conservatives used to fret about the swelling federal debt. Back when the debt was swelling at the rate of a trillion dollars a year under President Barack Obama it was conservatism’s most pressing issue, and led to the Republican party regaining control of both chambers of Congress, which successfully cut the annual budget deficits to a mere half-trlllion or so. With the annual budget deficits back up to a trillion bucks under President Donald Trump, however, only the most old-fashioned sorts of conservative are worried about it.
Back during his improbable presidential campaign Trump made some wildly extravagant promises about paying off the entire national debt in four years, but he also made some similarly wild and extravagant promises about huge tax cuts and increased military spending and an expensive infrastructure bill and a big beautiful wall along the entire southern border and allowing no changes to such popular programs as Medicare. At other times the self-proclaimed “King of Debt” also talked about racking up even more debt because of the temporarily low interest rates, and rattled international markets by openly speculating on the sort of defaults and haircuts that he’d relied on during his failed career as a casino mogul, but for some reason a plurality of Rebublican primary voters trusted Trump’s assurances it would all somehow work out.
Now Trump is once again talking about cutting deficits, but he’s finding it hard to do given all the other promises he’s made. The sizable tax cut Trump signed into law might yet fuel enough economic growth to cut into the deficits, but for now and the foreseeable future it’s lowering federal revenues as spending go up. Trump got the record defense spending that he wanted, and although he’s now reportedly open to cutting it slightly he seems to have some ill-informed ideas about military technology and still wants an expensive military parade and has troops idly awaiting an epic clash with a few thousand unarmed asylum-seekers at the southern border.
So far as we can tell from Trump’s vague explanations his infrastructure plan relies largely on private investment that the private investors surely expect to be compensated for one way or another, but it’s still expensive, and unless he can get it passed during the lame duck sessions it’s unlikely the incoming Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will make it happen. The outgoing Republican majority in the House was only willing to cough up a measly couple of billion dollars for Trump’s big beautiful border wall, and the incoming Democratic majority is unlikely to be as generous as that, and Trump is threatening a government shutdown over it even as he resumes talking about cutting the deficit.
Trump is still holding to his campaign promises about allowing no changes to Medicare or Social Security, too, which makes it pretty much impossible to put a noticeable dent in the budget deficits. Everything in the federal budget other than the military and servicing the existing federal debt is relatively paltry compared to those programs, and even if Trump somehow were able to eliminate all the undeniable waste and fraud it wouldn’t compare to a month’s spending on what Trump has declared sacrosanct, and even the stingiest conservative must concede that there are certain expensive services a government can only provide.
The expert and apolitical trustees of the Medicare and Social Security funds are predicting both programs will go belly up right around the time we’re eligible for their benefits, but for now they’re both so popular that it would take a pretty courageous politician to dare suggest even the mild reforms that might forestall the disaster. Once upon a time such Republican politicians as House Speaker Paul Ryan dared suggest paying current beneficiaries according to the deal they’d signed on to, and a deal to those currently paying in that the government could realistically hope to make good on, but Ryan’s leaving public life after two years of signing off on trillion dollar deficits, and we don’t expect presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suggest such essential reforms.
Nobody likes taxes and everyone likes their government checks and services, and most Americans are misinformed about the relatively paltry sums America is spending on foreign aid and abortion advice and subsidies for the arts and other resented-by-Republicans programs, and the administration of justice and maintenance of federal highways and other popular projects are more expensive than most Americans realize, so solving the political problem of deficits and debts is far more complicated than Trump made it sound back during the campaign. Despite his very stable genius and unaccountable knowledge of military technology Trump still doesn’t seem to have the answer, even though it’s long been apparent to the more old-fashioned sorts of conservatives, and he’s not the sort to tell his supporters anything they don’t want to hear.
Obama still deserves blame for the trillion dollar deficits that he needlessly racked up even during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and we’re sure Trump will continue to blame him, but Trump will also surely find someone to blame for the trillion dollar deficits he’s racked up in what he boasts is the greatest American economy ever, so we’re not hopeful the problem will be solved in time to pay for our golden years. In the meantime the government will be paying a few trifling millions of dollars a month to Trump’s golf resorts, but the Democrats in the House will probably tell Trump to keep his extravagant campaign promise to have Mexico pay for that big beautiful border wall and let him take the hit in the polls if he follows through on his threat of a government shutdown, that slender Republican majority in the Senate and Trump’s veto power will probably forestall the Democrats most expensive ambitions, so there’s a chance that at least America will head to the inevitable fiscal cliff at a slightly slower speed.
— Bud Norman