Friday, June 4, 2010

Your Share of the Debt

With the national debt at $13 trillion and counting, it was interesting to hear a story on NPR this morning about one woman's efforts to get people to contribute voluntarily to help pay it off. Kay Fishburn, a nurse from Wisconsin, founded "Citizens for a Debt-Free America," which encouraged people to send in money voluntarily. (If you're inspired to do so, the government bureau that will accept your gift can be found here.)

I can't help but admire someone who actually makes an effort to do something about our nation's tremendous debt, and I don't want to sound mean-spirited or curmudgeonly, but I don't think voluntary contributions are the answer to our debt problem, and I'm not sending in anything myself. Good work, Ms. Fishburn, I don't mean to criticize you for trying, but I see some huge problems with your efforts:

First, it's inconceivable to me that voluntary contributions could ever make even a minor dent in the public debt. According to the story, Fishburn's organization managed to raise about $3 million in contributions in its best year. That might seem like a good haul, but when the public debt is in the trillions, $3 million isn't even a rounding error.

Second, the fair and just way to deal with the public debt is for the burden of it to fall on everybody. When I pay income taxes, I know everyone else has to pay them too. The burden of the public debt shouldn't fall only on those who are public-spirited enough to make an extra contribution. What makes taxes tolerable is the knowledge that each individual's contribution is joined with those of everyone else. (Of course there are a lot of infuriating loopholes and special deals in the tax system, which detract from this sense of shared sacrifice, but at least that's the idea and it achieves the goal better than voluntary contributions.)

Finally, and most insidiously, there is a danger in presenting the government with new, free revenue -- it might just spend it. Again, I don't want to sound too curmudgeonly, but really, even if everyone started voluntarily chipping in a bunch extra to pay off the national debt, there's no guarantee that it would work, because Congress might then feel less pressure to control spending. Looking at the performance of Congress in this regard over the past decades, it does seem that, with rare exceptions, substantial deficit spending is a constant in our government, regardless of which party controls Congress or how well the economy is doing. The government managed to run a surplus for a little while under President Clinton, but that was exceptional.

So while I admire and thank anyone who's willing to chip in extra to help pay of the U.S. national debt, I would think that the problem can only be solved by an appropriate mix of tax policy, spending control, and good economic performance at the national level.

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