Like a teenager blindly running up his first credit card with vague ideas of painless payments, federal leaders are charging trillions in a similarly cavalier fashion.
Behaviorists talk of "magical thinking," in which the mentally weak and immature substitute fantasies for the more difficult process of taking responsibility for actions and consequences. Congress and the White House indulge in magical thinking when it comes to paying America's bills.
Even more dangerous, our leaders are able to change debt-financing rules in ways that deceive themselves and us about the true extent of the crisis, while endangering the integrity of funds for which they owe a moral and legal duty.
Numerous shenanigans have brought us to the brink of breaking the federal treasury's latest $8.2 trillion national debt limit. Most recently, news emerged last week that the Treasury Department is tapping the civil service pension fund and suspending investments in a retirement savings plan for federal employees.
Using pension funds to balance the books is a bad sign in private industry and it's a bad sign in government. It indicates that legitimate income is insufficient to pay the bills.
This isn't the first time the U.S. Treasury has resorted to this particular financial shell game and, as in the past, it promises to repay the pension fund as soon as it can. But that this practice is nearly routine is certainly no comfort. That the U.S. must play such games in order to remain solvent is a profoundly disquieting sign.
The $8.2 trillion we owe is no mere hypothetical sum. It's such a huge number, it takes on an air of unreality, but it is real money our nation really owes creditors, many of them foreign governments with little love for us.
Putting this debt into context is difficult. Few of us will ever be millionaires, and only 793 people in the world are billionaires. In total, Forbes magazine estimates these richest of the rich have assets of $2.6 trillion, less than a third of our current national debt. As usual, Forbes confirms that Bill Gates is the world's richest man, with $50 billion in assets. If $50 billion equals one Bill, we would need 162 Bills to pay off our national debt.
We remain a rich nation. But wealthy nations, like rich individuals, stay that way by carefully managing their resources. Wealthy people who routinely spend more than they make do not remain rich for long. Paying interest on debt takes away money that could be used for investments.
In the case of America, debt increasingly limits our options, now and in the future. The full consequences have been neatly described by economist H.A. Scott Trask of the Ludwig von Mises Institute:
"By avoiding having to increase taxes, borrowing hides the price to be paid for increased government spending (the destructive diversion of capital and labor from private pursuits to government projects), and defuses potential public opposition to new or expanded government initiatives, here and abroad. It is thus both unrepublican and anti-democratic.
"Second, depending on how long the redemption of the principal is deferred, accumulating interest payments can double, triple, quadruple, ... the cost of the initial expenditure. (This country has never yet discharged its Civil War debt!) Third, interest payments represent a perpetual income transfer from the working public to the bondholders - a kind of regressive tax that makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer. Finally, the debt introduces new and wholly artificial forms of uncertainty into financial markets, with everyone left to guess whether the debt will be paid through taxes, inflation, or default."
How a professed conservative Republican president and a Republican Congress managed to get us into this mess is a question for the ages. But finding a solution cannot await history's judgment - we must bring spending and revenue into alignment without delay.