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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Moral Debt?

When I was a kid my mother used to refer to something outrageous or enormous by comparing it "the national debt." At the time I didn't know how much the national debt was. I doubt that my mother knew the amount of the national debt. But we could tell by the tone of her voice that it was a nasty number. Surely no one would approve of such a debt. But that was then.

In the 1980's I voted for Ronald Reagan. I thought he was a decent president. But I was in banking and paid more attention to the national debt. While I supported Reagan's presidency, I was alarmed to see that the national debt was ballooning under his leadership. In fact, despite the economic prosperity that much of the nation enjoyed during his presidency, we ran up a staggering amount of debt compared to the presidencies before him.

Through the years since then, we've watched the national debt grow at a staggering pace. At something like $11 trillion now, I doubt my mother could even comprehend such a number. She would surely roll over in her grave if she knew it now! I have to confess, I see the number and am utterly overwhelmed.

Just a few years ago, I did a spreadsheet and tracked the national debt during the term of each president since George Washington. It was an interesting exercise. I learned then that we hadn't reduced the principal on the national debt in more than 40 years. (Now it's more than 50 years!) But you know, I could comprehend it. I could see how a percentage of our national budget was going to cover interest on the national debt. Under President Clinton, we finally achieved an operating surplus, and it looked like we would finally start to reduce the principal on the national debt. I comprehended that (and felt good about it).

Today, in the Dallas Morning News, there are a number of distinguished writers giving opinion about the moral dilemma that our national debt poses. They argue in both directions and I think they make some pretty good points. You might want to scroll through what they have to say at

So here's the thing: the national debt seems destined to keep growing at a staggering pace. Our current president doesn't seem to be terribly concerned. He just keeps telling us to be prepared because it will grow and grow at a staggering pace. But I am fully overwhelmed by the number now. I don't understand how we can keep spending so much money. I don't understand why the world keeps lending us so much money.

I don't understand how we could ever pay back so much money. Moreover, I am quite certain that I don't comprehend the amount of sacrifice and change in national lifestyle America might have to make in order to be able to pay back the national debt. When it balloons to more than $1 million per American family (as they say it will in my lifetime), I am no longer able to grasp that number. You can't get enough taxes out of me to retire such a debt. So who will you get it out of? How many generations would it take, living an austere life of fiscal sacrifice, would it take to retire the national debt of the U.S.?

I think any one of us could preach about the moral dilemma. But I honestly suspect we have probably crossed the moral threshold on this topic. It is really too late to be talking about whether being such a debtor nation is right or wrong. It just doesn't matter any more. We are so far over the waterfall on this one that there could never be any turning back. It seems that we are destined to find out what consequences await us --- with little ability to change course and avert those consequences.

In my simple mind, it seems that the only way the U.S. national debt might be resolved is if Christ returns. I wonder what the number will be when He does. I wonder what Jesus will say about that number. Stay tuned, because it appears we will get to find out!

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