Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The debt limit as a moral test

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 21, 2023

Would you be alarmed if I told you that the federal government, by administrative decree, had just added $100,000 to your mortgage?

No, let me be more accurate, to illustrate my point. The added debt would be $100,000 per person. So for a family of four, the decree would add $400,000 to your household debt. Larger families would owe more.

Now of course the government has not issued such a decree. But the overall federal debt has just reached $33 trillion. Who owes that debt? The US government. And who constitutes the US government? “We, the people.” Divide $33 trillion by the US population, and it works out neatly to about $100,000 for every man, woman, and child in America.

And that debt is growing fast. In the past 94 days, the government has tacked another $1 trillion onto the debt. In round figures that is roughly $350 billion in new debt every month, or a bit more than $1,000 in added debt per month for every American citizen.

One way or another, debts must be paid. When a spendthrift individual begins using a cash advance on one credit-card account to pay off the debt on another, he is headed for disaster. The interest paid on the debt begins to eat into the funds that might have paid down the principal, and although the ultimate debacle might be postponed (there are quite a few credit-card companies, although their interest rates are exorbitant). Sooner or later the house of cards collapses. Remember the character in Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, who was asked how he went bankrupt. “Gradually, and then suddenly.”

The federal government is not like an individual debtor, because Uncle Sam can issue new debt and print new money more or less indefinitely. But the government’s unique power only masks—does not alter—the economic realities. The same fundamental principles still apply. Interest on the debt is a steadily growing portion of federal expenditures, and the funds spent in debt service are funds not available for productive government programs—or for paying down the debt. The money that American individuals and corporations put into federal bonds, to float the debt, is money not invested in start-up companies that might hire the unemployed, spark economic growth, and maybe even pull us out of our addiction to deficit spending.

Why am I writing about economic/political problems, on a site devoted to Catholic culture? Because this is a moral problem as well. Isn’t it immoral to roll up debt without any plan to pay it off? To buy things for which you cannot pay? To squander your family’s inheritance, leaving your children to suffer the consequences? We, as a society, are doing all that.

This week the talk in Washington is about raising the federal debt ceiling: the artificial barrier beyond which the government cannot issue new debt. There is no longer any serious prospect of balancing the federal budget, let alone paying down the overall debt. The only questions being asked are how much new credit Uncle Sam will need, and how long will it be until the ceiling is raised again. And in this debate, the voice of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has been heard: never to caution against profligacy, but to recommend further spending on some favored federal programs.

How can this massive debt ($33,000,000,000,000!) ever be repaid? If we can no longer contemplate a balanced budget—and bear in mind that a substantial budget surplus would be necessary, year after year for decades, to balance the books—two possibilities suggest themselves. The government could default on the debt, defrauding honest investors, cutting off hope of further credit, and bringing utter chaos to the American economy. Or the government can quietly fuel inflation, until $33 trillion no longer seems an unattainable goal.

But inflation, too, incurs moral liabilities. The costs are borne by the poor, who find their cost of living rising faster than their income; and by the middle-class families who watch their savings erode in real value. Inflation is particularly rough on the elderly, and those living on fixed incomes. In short the burden is shouldered by precisely those people for whom the Catholic Church professes the greatest care.

Meanwhile, who profits from inflation? Debtors, obviously. And there are many of them among us, as more than $20 trillion in American consumer debt testifies. Meanwhile normally prudent people, facing a strong disincentive against saving, may choose to buy things that they do not need: things that might retain value more reliably than a money investment. So a spendthrift government encourages spendthrift citizens, and we live with routine luxuries as together we careen toward financial disaster. Remember the prophetic words of Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV: “Apres nous, le déluge.”

Compulsive spending, for a person or for a government, really is like an addiction, which feeds on itself as it weakens the addict. We need strong, clear moral voices demanding that we confront the problem. Could we hope to hear those voices from our Church leaders? From serious Christians generally? Because otherwise the problem may compound itself until, like so many addicts, we have no choice but to confront it: when we hit bottom.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 28, 2023 12:40 AM ET USA

    "...the voice of the US[CCB] has been heard: never to caution against profligacy, but to recommend further spending on some favored federal programs." There is no question about this. I am on their activist mailing list. In the last couple of weeks I have received 3 activist alerts by the USCCB to write my congressmen to increase spending in one bill or other. When it comes to morality, I state the Catholic case. I never encourage increased spending. I suggest ways they can better do their job.

  • Posted by: td4207 - Sep. 22, 2023 6:27 PM ET USA

    But the Church is all in on the progressives Green agenda! What could wrong?

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 22, 2023 5:14 AM ET USA

    And keeping to the practical side of this issue, 33 trillion is only the amount that they are admitting to. It is likely much worse than that. But what's a few trillion, right?

  • Posted by: Lucius49 - Sep. 21, 2023 7:16 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this commentary. The debt is like the elephant in the room and yet… Yes, where are our church leaders about this?

  • Posted by: miketimmer499385 - Sep. 21, 2023 9:45 AM ET USA

    I have been harping on this moral issue for years as a former educator of both young and old in practical financial matters. It isn't just a coincidence that family formation took that "suddenly" plunge with the repudiation of the dollar's value in the early '70s. Our churchmen haven't the ability to see the multi-faceted prudential matters in this case. I wish in general that at least some of them were more broadly educated, or willing to seriously listen to your commentary.