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Debt dilemma

| May 17, 2023 2:00 AM

Americans have always commonly agreed that taxes are the price of a civilized society. Only relatively recently has the idea that “taxation is theft” been seriously suggested in the public discourse.

People who claim not to believe in government use that belief as justification to not pay taxes to support it. While tax protesters make up a small minority, few taxpayers probably see supporting government services as a patriotic duty.

Part of the reason for this is that many don’t believe they are getting their money’s worth. “Government waste” is practically a proverb, and people need little convincing to believe examples of it.

In fact, the American government has almost always spent more than it has taken in, and it has customarily issued bonds to cover its debts. Over the last century the government has sought to keep tabs on its debt by establishing periodic limits on borrowing.

Once limits are reached, new limits must be established so the country can pay off the last round of borrowing.

Since raising the debt ceiling has been routine, the great strength of our economy has been the assurance of our government’s “full faith and credit.”

Investing in American debt has always been the safest way of saving. It has also enabled our government to spend beyond its means, and therefore provide us with services and benefits beyond our money’s worth.

Now the incremental limits on short-term deficits have created a national debt of staggering proportions.

At well over $30 trillion, it is widely described as unsustainable. But our people have become accustomed to deficit spending and feel entitled to the level of benefits such spending provides.

However, our economy’s capacity to pay off the accumulated national debt by a billion here and a billion there, is like trying to empty a horse trough with a coffee cup.

So, our leaders have simply tried to keep up with the interest obligations, and that is where we find ourselves today, confronting a borrowing limit that now must be addressed in less than a month when the government won’t be able to pay its bills.

The Republicans say government is too large, and they won’t continue to pay for it by raising taxes on the wealthy as President Biden proposes. The Democrats say they won’t cut the publicly funded programs that the people have become dependent on.

But the numbers don’t lie, and posturing politicians can’t hold back time.

It’s been suggested that the President has a Constitutional duty to implement the laws that are passed by Congress and that any “limit” to prevent him from doing so is unconstitutional. That could be a matter for the courts to decide, but nowhere does the Constitution give the unelected judicial branch of government the power to determine the budget.

What is indisputable is that there is currently a national debt totaling more than any generation alive today can pay. Neither is the fact that fully 99% of Americans who earn a salary follow the law and pay their taxes.

By contrast, some of the wealthiest Americans, whose investment earnings are harder to track, can afford lawyers and accountants to help them dodge their taxes.

This is why we hear of billionaires who pay little or no income tax. According to five former IRS Commissioners, Republicans and Democrats, “Uncollected taxes today equal the total taxes paid by the lower 90% of individual taxpayers.” That this has been allowed to happen in a government of laws is an outrage.

While the blame game will continue on, the self-preservation instinct will motivate Democrat and Republican negotiators to come up with a temporary face saving agreement for both. Ultimately though, any legitimate long-term debt solution will require bringing the tax cheats to justice.

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.

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