How Progressives Can Become Grover's Worst Nightmare: Get Serious About Tackling The Debt

I started my political activism in the presidential campaign of Gov. Howard Dean back in 2003. I was most impressed with Dr. Dean for two reasons: his actions as governor to deliver universal health care to Vermont's children, and his insistence that budgets be balanced. He balanced 11 budgets as governor, even though there is no such requirement for the Vermont governor to do so. When he balanced these budgets, Gov. Dean was often derided by the state's liberal elite as a sellout, a Democrat in Name Only, and a Republican in Democratic clothing.

Regardless, Gov. Dean's progressive initiatives like health care reform in his state were successful in large part on the strengths of his fiscal responsibility. When Gov. Dean made Medicaid into a middle class entitlement in his state, it was a hard charge to make that this fiscal hawk was about to take the state down a spending binge.

President Obama has often echoed this sentiment in explaining why progressives need to be concerned about the national debt. One of the best examples is the president's continuous reminder to the progressive movement that in order to govern effectively and invest properly in our future, we must show the American people that we are good stewards of taxpayer dollars. There's a reason the Republican lexicon is full of 'tax and spend' - by that, they wish to convince the American people that taxes are bad things that the government simply wastes.

But perhaps a far greater motivator for progressives to care about the debt is this number: $3,890,284,438,519.47. That is the total amount of interest we have paid on our federal debt in the last 10 years. Just interest. $4 trillion. Funny how the grand bargain being talked about would achieve almost exactly this amount in deficit reduction over the exact same amount of time, don't you think?

I am not about to argue that our debt will suddenly crank up our interest rate; although many economists have made that argument, I think in this instance Paul Krugman is right. But while a rising debt probably won't affect the government's ability to borrow money right now, it may well have an adverse effect on the rest of us. As more and more of the money available to be lent out goes to finance our debt, there is less of it available for small business loans and other private loans (such as mortgage or car loans). That may well increase the borrowing rates for small businesses and individuals.

But the problem with the debt isn't the interest rate. It's waste. In the last 10-year budget window, we threw away $4 trillion not to invest in public schools or roads, not to feed the hungry, clothe the naked or house the homeless, not to provide medical care to the sick, not to care for the elderly, hell, not even to actually reduce the principal amount of our debt. We paid $4 trillion just on interest.

What progressive would like to argue that we couldn't find a better use for that $4 trillion? More student aid, more broadband, more investment in education and infrastructure and in science and technology, more economic stimulus. I could go on adding to the list, but I think the point is made. I am not trying to claim that we can or should eliminate all our debt tomorrow, but it is incumbent upon those of us claim to have the interests of a just society in our hearts to look at the national debt when we are pissing away nearly $400 billion a year on average on just paying interest on the debt.

Sure, the Republican right uses the debt debate to try to suck dry every program that benefits anyone but the super rich. But they don't 'use' it simply as a rhetorical weapon. They use it as a real weapon. When in power, they increase the debt, so that later they can cut crucial programs in the name of reducing it. For them, it's always providing an answer to a self-inflicted problem, and it's a pretty good gig if you can get it. But just because the problem is self-inflicted does not mean it isn't real. It's real when besides the defense budget, the interest on our debt alone is dwarfing very single other item of the discretionary budget.

There's a prevailing wisdom in the liberal intelligentia that right now, we must focus on boosting the economy and creating more jobs instead of the deficit. I agree with the first part of it. If we were only able to do one thing at a time, there is no doubt that jobs and the economy should be our first priority. But the truth is that the debt can be tackled simultaneously while boosting job creation. The debt has a direct impact on how much we are able to spend on programs to train our workforce for the jobs of modern industries, as every dollar spent in interest is a dollar we cannot spend on job training or financial aid, or unemployment benefits. We need to rise above the false choice that we must either create job or reduce the deficit, and understand that we can, and must do both.

So if we begin acting on the debt today, and begin to bring down the deficit now (which President Obama has been doing to the best of his ability, but he needs Congress to help), we won't simply be looking at a future where we waste less of our taxpayer dollars paying interest on the debt. We will be looking at a federal government more capable of strengthening the social contract, investing in our people and our infrastructure, and providing a hand up to those who need it.

The ballooning debt is a right wing weapon to drown the federal government (and the good that it does) in the bathtub. It's Grover Norquist's wet dream. It's all well and good that Norquist is being seen as the pariah as we are trying to solve the fiscal cliff. But you want to really end Norquist's (and his ilk's) rein on what progressives see as a more just, fairer society for good? Start taking care of the debt.