Let’s say you served on a company’s board of directors, and its by-laws required the president to give a periodic report. And let’s say your company was losing money – in fact, a lot of it, and had been for a long time. It’s deeply in debt with no real plan to get out. Worst of all, the company’s structure and culture virtually assure the debt will continue growing until someday its consequences are severe.
The report would have to cover a lot of things – but shouldn’t at least part of it include an honest appraisal of the company’s rising red ink along with a specific plan of action?
That’s what was wrong with President Trump’s State of the Union address, and most of the ones given by previous presidents. The speech stretched for nearly an hour and 21 minutes from the first word to last. It was not a bad speech, but, in all that time, Trump didn’t even mention the national debt – now almost $20.5 trillion and more than $62,600 for every American man, woman and child.
This is an old problem that is rapidly getting worse. The government has been in debt since the mid-1830s, but the debt has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years alone. The annual deficit is projected to be $730 billion this year, and that’s assuming Congress doesn’t spend even more money it does not have, which it probably will for disaster relief and other expenses.
In fact, the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects that next year the annual deficit will hit $1 trillion, just as it did during the early years of the Obama administration. The difference is that under Obama, the nation was deeply mired in and then recovering from a recession that had begun under President George W. Bush. This time, the economy is doing well. (And what if, next year, it isn’t?)
Most of the indirect references Trump did make to the debt referred to policies that will make it bigger – the recent tax cuts, increased military spending, modernizing the country’s nuclear forces, an infrastructure program, and increased border security and enforcement. All of those are worthy objectives, though Americans can disagree about the details. But what was missing was the same thing that’s always missing – how to pay for it all, beyond implied promises of economic growth.
The State of the Union address is annual evidence that we’re living in a state of denial. Most officeholders know the debt is a problem, but its worst consequences will arrive someday in the future, probably long after the next election. We’re the equivalent of a company that worries only about its next quarterly earnings report.
So no, it’s not just Trump. Previous presidents’ addresses have included lengthy wish lists without including the means to pay for them. The Democratic response by Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, also ignored the debt.
Closer to home, five of Arkansas’ six congressional representatives released statements lauding the speech – Sens. Tom Cotton and John Boozman, and Reps. Rick Crawford, Steve Womack and Bruce Westerman. While some described national challenges specifically or generally, none mentioned the debt. Ditto for Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who praised Trump while ignoring the $20.5 trillion (and rapidly growing) elephant in the room.
In a democracy, the voters are the board of directors. As with any board, it’s not our job to follow every detail of our organization’s day-to-day activities. Our job is to consider the big picture, do the hiring and firing, and look to the future as we make our will known. Our organization is spending our grandchildren’s money in order to buy our votes. That should not be acceptable to us.
When our organization’s president and other officeholders report to us, we should expect a sober description of our challenges along with concrete solutions. With the national debt, we rarely get that from anyone in Washington.
We should take that into account this year when we offer our performance reviews – at the ballot box.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.