Budget & Tax
Ray Carter | August 30, 2021
National debt threatens citizens’ futures, experts say
In the past year, federal deficit spending and associated national debt have exploded to previously unthinkable levels with ever-accelerating speed. That threatens the financial well-being of average citizens, experts warned during a recent Oklahoma City panel.
“Millions, billions and trillions are not the same,” said U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. “The way that I translate this is a million seconds is 11-and-a-half days. A billion seconds is 31-and-a-half years. There’s a big difference between a million and a billion. A trillion seconds is 31,688 years. So when people just throw around, ‘It’s just a trillion,’ they’ve to realize how much bigger that is than a million, how much bigger that is than a billion. It is really swamping us.”
Lankford made his comments at an event hosted by the Millennial Debt Foundation, which seeks to “lead a generational conversation about fiscal stewardship, the role of the federal government and America’s deficit spending crisis.”
The Oklahoma City panel was part of the Millennial Debt Foundation’s nationwide “Stewardship Series.” The event was focused not only on the impact of federal spending and debt, but also on the legacy of the late U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, one of the nation’s most prominent fiscal hawks during his time in office.
The U.S. Congress passed a massive spending bill in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While even many fiscal hawks did not argue against that package, given the extremely unusual circumstances, it only whet the appetite of congressional spenders, Lankford noted.
The first round of COVID-bailout funding approved in 2020 totaled nearly $2 trillion, but Lankford noted Democratic lawmakers immediately began demanding a second round and their spending desires have only increased since.
“It was almost like an eighth grader coming off of a roller coaster going, ‘That was fun. Let’s do it again!” Lankford said.
He noted Democrats passed another $2 trillion round of COVID-bailout funding earlier this year, even though “much of it wasn’t COVID-related at all.” The impact of that spending package has been decidedly negative for families across the nation.
“It’s caused massive inflation across the economy,” Lankford said. “It is still challenging workforce issues for us.”
Massive subsidies provided to many citizens created a situation where people earn more not working than they can when gainfully employed.
“It’s really challenging the growth of our economy, the re-engagement of our economy,” Lankford said.
Weston Wamp, founder of the Millennial Debt Foundation, noted annual spending blowouts of that magnitude have a compounding effect over time that augments the negative consequences.
“If you look at the current spending plans of the Biden administration, ten years from now we’ll have $40 trillion just in debt held by the public,” Wamp said. “Forty trillion means that if you just have just 1 percent increase across all federal debt in interest rate, that’s $400 billion a year.”
Jonathan Small, president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said the real-world impacts of that spending are borne by those who have the least financial security.
“One of the things that I think it’s important for people to remember is that runaway inflation, crazy interest rates, they hurt the most vulnerable the most,” Small said.
While those who advocate for more government deficit spending often claim it benefits people who utilize government services, Small said the repercussions of massive federal debt and deficit spending can more than offset any alleged benefit.
“When you have runaway inflation, runaway interest payments, the people who are hurt the most are the poor and lower and middle classes,” Small said. “The wealthy aren’t the ones that are going to pay the price for that. The wealthy can adjust to significant rises in inflation for basic goods. The average voter for Senator Lankford in Oklahoma, they can’t just change the way their family budget works because groceries and other staples have now become exorbitantly high.”
Speakers noted one challenge of reining in federal debt is communicating the need for restraint with the average voter. To achieve that goal, state Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican who got his start in politics working for Coburn, said deficit hawks need to take a note from his former mentor. Treat said officials must not mince words and instead shoot straight with voters in blunt language.
“A lot of people tell me, ‘Greg, you should really soften what you say,’” Treat said. “But I grew up around a man, really, that didn’t soften anything he said to anyone, including the president of the United States.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.