During the founding of the American Republic’s revolutionary experiment in self-government, its architects looked to antiquity for guidance. The Athenian city-state and the Roman republic provided instructional inspiration and cautionary tales.
At their peaks, both Athens and Rome possessed many virtues, principles, and practices worthy of emulation by new generations of free peoples. Yet both civilizations declined and fell. Practical people, America’s founders sought to build upon the proven foundations of antiquity’s achievements while remaining cognizant of and determined to avoid the pitfalls that led to the collapse of both, notably the cultural declines that enervated their capacities to avoid their demises.
Still, they understood there was only so much one generation—even the founding one—could do to promote and protect the new republic from the fates of Athens and Rome. As Ben Franklin cautioned Elizabeth Willing Powel and future generations at the time: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Today, it is commonly understood among the citizenry how the federal government measures everything in monetary amounts. The extent or dearth of political “effectiveness,” “leadership,” “progress,” and “compassion”—all are “evidenced” and measured by the amount of money spent (and/or taxed and raised) for an undertaking. The citizenry is far less aware that we can measure America’s decline in real time.
Last April, I wrote about our nation’s $31.5 trillion national debt, and the dire consequences it will wreak. Less than a year later, our revolutionary experiment in self-government has amassed a $34 trillion national debt, and every sign points to this astronomical debt—and our cultural abasement—accelerating.
The national debt eclipsed $34 trillion several years sooner than pre-pandemic projections. The Congressional Budget Office’s January 2020 projections had gross federal debt eclipsing $34 trillion in fiscal year 2029…
“So far, Washington has been spending money as if we had unlimited resources,” said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at Loyola Marymount University. “But the bottom line is there is no free lunch,” he said, “and I think the outlook is pretty grim.”
The political truism remains valid: politicians spend other people’s money to get votes. Unless and until the citizenry decides to vote against such candidates, the spending spree will proceed. True, many voters decry the national debt, and this causes many politicians to vow to reduce the debt. But whether such vows are sincerely held or lip service, one stark fact remains: both Republicans and Democrats are talking about reducing by billions a national debt in the trillions. There is no politically palatable plan anywhere to systematically eliminate the national debt altogether, as it grows all the while. Bluntly, despite its unconscionable immensity, the national debt has yet to make life palpably painful for voters. Ergo, the deeper question arises: Why doesn’t dumping this crushing debt burden on future generations constitute an intolerable situation for today’s generation of Americans?
It is due to the decline of American culture—again, one we can measure in real time with every dollar—that our national debt bloats.
There was a cultural shift caused by the advent of credit, wherein Americans became increasingly inured to carrying massive levels of personal debt. Past generations of Americans raised to save money before spending it would be revulsed by the current “joke” that a “winner” is someone who dies in debt and screws their creditors. Little wonder, then, that most Americans today don’t blanch at the fact that the national debt equates to roughly $100,000 per citizen. Of course, if living in personal debt was no longer a cause of concern, it would be even less of a concern to citizens if the abstract Leviathan in Washington (and its smaller siblings in state capitols) carried debts, no matter how massive.
Within this mindset, one can see parallels between the cultural declines and ultimate demise of Athens and Rome and our own perilous position. A declining culture is bent upon immediate gratification, believes itself entitled to the fruits of other people’s labors, and considers following moral, ethical, and legal precepts as being for suckers, especially if they bar the indulgence of selfish whims and desires.
In essence, it is a solipsistic sense of living solely for the present. The devolution of courage into contentment, duty into indulgence, sacrifice into avarice—all abet the transmogrification of a virtuous republic seeking to form a more perfect union into a venal cauldron of self-entitled mendicants demanding the satiation of their sundry desires. Or, as Franklin might have understood it: one’s pursuit of happiness has trampled one’s duty to form a more perfect union.
In this cultural decline, a cruel, patent irony exists: this generation of Americans has not been spoiled by their success; they have been spoiled by other generations of Americans’ success.
So, here we are. But where will we be?
When it could turn into a more dire situation, is anyone’s guess, says Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, “but if and when that happens, it could mean very significant consequences that occur very quickly.”
“It could mean spikes in interest rates. It could mean a recession that leads to lots more unemployment. It could lead to another bout of inflation or weird going on with consumer prices – several of which are things that we’ve experienced just in the past few years,” he said.
Akabas said, “There is growing concern among investors and rating agencies that the trajectory we’re on is unsustainable – when that turns into a more dire situation is anyone’s guess.”
At the present pace, based upon the fates of Athens and Rome, we can hazard an educated guess. As our culture continues to degrade, the citizenry and politicians will kick the can down the road to civilizational decline until our cancerous $34 trillion national debt consumes our revolutionary experiment in self-government. Best not to contemplate the gory details.
Is the die cast? Is there a chance Americans will awaken and address the existential threat of the national debt? You can measure those odds in real time, too.
An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.