Topsy-Turvy Argument

Posted: April 9, 2010 in Consumerism, Debate, Economics

Here is something a bit unusual: a quote of someone else’s blog post in its entirety so I can respond here rather than on the blog itself. (I don’t comment on blogs that retrieve tens and hundreds of comments, often repeating the same points again and again. Further, if the blogger him- or herself doesn’t respond to comments, I withhold.) The post is titled Borrowing from our Children by Scott Adams, the cartoonist who draws Dilbert:

Last night I heard on television for the millionth time that our national debt is like borrowing from our children. Millions of viewers from around the country were probably nodding their heads in agreement. That saying has been around so long that we accept it as a simple statement of fact.

But are we borrowing from our children or investing in them? Suppose we decide to stop spending money so our children will have lots of money for themselves. That would be generous of us, right?

I don’t think so.

I think future generations might like to have most of the things we’re investing in, such as infrastructure, healthcare, schools, a clean environment, energy sources, and freedom, to name just a few. No one wants to inherit a country full of sickly, uneducated hobos, on the verge of being conquered by Cuba.

Obviously there’s a middle ground, where we spend our money as wisely as possible in the present for the benefit of all. But stop making me feel guilty about leaving future generations a clean, educated, healthy, well-defended country with a vigorous economy, even if it comes with some debt attached. It still seems like a bargain.

And perhaps we should stop talking about the future debt in absolute dollars, because “trillions” scares the food out of my esophagus, through my large and small intestines, and about four feet into the surface of the earth. I prefer to hear our national debt expressed as percentages of, for example, our next 30 years of projected GDP. That way it doesn’t seem so scary.

Future generations should go get a job. And a haircut. And stay off my lawn!

Mr. Adams gets high marks for being entertaining, as the last line and snark like “being conquered by Cuba” demonstrate. His sense of humor is well honed and appeals to a lot of people. But in choosing the national debt for joke fodder (or is it?), he risks that someone earnest like me will take him literally rather than accept the obvious irony of turning the argument on its head just for fun and sport. But it’s not harmless fun, as his comments demonstrate, to dick around with people about major domestic policy points. Clever writers buffalo the credulous all the time.

Mr. Adams begins be redefining debt as investment. Even simple terms in economics have the potential to confuse average people, and the whole of gross national product, national debt, and numbers in the trillions are so far removed from our grasp of immediate reality that they become free-floating notions capable of carrying multiple, competing interpretations. Some priming of the pump via national debt is good, but at some undetermined point, it produces severely diminished returns. No one can say for certain where the dividing line (or large grey area) is, but we have most surely crossed into uncharted territory by exceeding all historical precedent with our current level of deficit spending, which is projected to continue for at least a decade.

Mr. Adams also congratulates us for “investing” in infrastructure, schools, healthcare, energy, the environment, and not least of all, freedom. He forgot to say that “it’s for the children.” If only these objectives were taken even halfway seriously, we wouldn’t be in the unrecoverable mess we’re in, both nationally and globally. But instead, we’ve institutionalized a way of life based on enjoy now, pay later (or not at all), and damn the consequences, since by then we’ll be dead anyway. Without admitting it, we’ve chosen to live like a bunch of overfed clowns — which doesn’t even make us especially happy — while dooming anyone unfortunate enough to follow in our wake to truly desperate times.

Bertrand Russell observed that during WWI, the British rail stations were “crowded with soldiers, almost all of them drunk, half of them accompanied by drunken prostitutes, the other half by wives or sweethearts, all despairing, all reckless, all mad … I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better.” [quoting from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, p. 182]

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Comments
  1. Nice post, with a great finishing line from Russell. Adams — who clearly knows we’re headed for economic collapse, based on his cartoons — is quite the wordsmith, and he’s taken a page from the neo-con playbook with his substitution of investment for debt. As you point out, that’s a slippery slope, and one I suspect we’ve already begun falling down. If you want to see your share of the national debt, click here.

  2. Isaac says:

    Fantastic post.

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