President Donald Trump has overseen a $1 trillion increase in the national debt since coming into office just 14 months ago, pushing the total debt north of $21 trillion.
But don’t worry about it. There’s nothing scary about today’s debt or deficit figures on their own — and Republicans know that complaining about the deficit doesn’t move the needle much on Election Day.
Yes, Trump rode into office promising to eliminate the national debt by the end of a second term and to make great budget deals for the country, only to preside over trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see. And, yes, $21 trillion sounds like a big number, especially because the spending bill coming down the pike in Congress this week would accelerate the accumulation even more. (Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week provided public reassurances that the White House still has debt reduction as a goal.) And yes, congressional Republicans who did nothing but complain about the deficit and debt under former President Barack Obama have proven themselves to be hypocrites by casting their fiscal concerns aside now that someone with an R after his name is in the White House.
But the deficit also doesn’t hurt anybody politically. Per the polls, voters do not rank fiscal matters such as the debt very high on the list of things they care about: Of all the critiques of Trump, “too much government spending” is nowhere to be found amid the lax response to Russian election meddling and porn star intrigue.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong about borrowing in order to pay for things that matter. In fact, that’s exactly what a government overseeing an economy like the U.S.’s should be doing: Using every tool at its disposal to fund programs that improve the lives of its citizens. Criticizing the debt on moral grounds, or because the number sounds like a big one when devoid of context, misses the point.
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First, the U.S. prints its own money, so the government is not going to run out of it. Second, inflation — which should eventually rise as the government spends, hurting everyone’s purchasing ability — is low, as it has been for years. Rising inflation would indicate that the U.S. economy is maxed out and running too hot; its relative absence indicates the opposite.
Of all the critiques of Trump, “too much government spending” is nowhere to be found amid the lax response to Russian election meddling and porn star intrigue.
Meanwhile, the debt crisis that so many analysts and members of Congress have warned about since the government first started responding to the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing Great Recession hasn’t come, nor is there a hint it will anytime soon. As a percentage of the economy, the deficit is still just half what is was during the worst of those years.
While talking about the deficit may help some members of Congress score cheap political points with partisans (particularly when the opposing party holds the White House), there’s no evidence that increasing the deficit causes any politician a real problem on Election Day. If anything, it’s the opposite, as politicians who never preside over deficit reduction handily win re-election all the time.
And that makes sense: Spending helps the government do tangible things for people, which those people see, feel and vote on. Their actual experience with the economy is far more important than some theoretical debate about debt with consequences that never arrive.
The GOP today then is just following the well-worn tradition of Republicans coming into office having made lots of promises about deficit reduction, only to throw them all out the window and pay no political price. President Ronald Reagan played that game, as did President George W. Bush. In 2002, then-Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly made a key observation: “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” In the 1980s, Reagan oversaw America crossing the $1 trillion debt threshold for the first time, despite his professed deficit concerns; the current trajectory means that some future president will face $2 trillion annual deficits.
And just like in 2018, the reason for those deficit numbers under Reagan was pretty simple: Tax cuts and defense spending increases. The recently-enacted Republican tax plan will cost some $1.5 trillion over a decade. The GOP has also pushed for more defense spending, even as the U.S. outspends all of its most important geopolitical rivals in that department combined.
Therein, though, lies the proper line of critique when it comes to the national debt: Not the top-line number, but what is being bought with the borrowing. The Republican tax plan, for instance, is a problem not because of the cost, but because of who it benefitted — which is largely wealthy Americans and big corporations. Spending that same $1.5 trillion on something like infrastructure or tax breaks purely for low-income folks would have been a much better use of the money because it would have impacted more people per dollar and been a long-term investment in America’s economic vitality.
People's actual experience with the economy is far more important than some theoretical debate about debt with consequences that never arrive.
Until the economy is at full employment (which, even at the current low unemployment rate, is almost certainly not yet the case), deficit spending is going to improve things for more people than it will hurt.
What matters is what the government buys, not that it borrows. And if the worst should happen, the Federal Reserve can always step in and cool things down by hiking interest rates.
So Trump and his team should rest assured that the deficit is not something of which it should be afraid. In fact, their best political move is to ignore the debt scolds entirely until the economy is undeniably humming along at full strength. And for Democrats, the lesson is clear: Turning into deficit hawks won’t turn you into election-winners.
Pat Garofalo is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He was formerly an editor at U.S. News & World Report and ThinkProgress.