The Big List of US National Crises: The National Debt

Allen Faulton
14 min readJan 25, 2023

An Article of the Modern Survival Guide

You’re reading the Modern Survival Guide, a long-running blog that I’ve been writing to cover things that we all need to know to survive and thrive in the modern world. In the US, where I live, survival is an increasingly important topic. We have a large number of national crises that, regardless of your politics, exist and affect us all. We desperately need to solve, or at the very least address, these issues and so far… nope. No real progress.

In Part 1 of this mini-series, I talked about the first of these big challenges, the current political instability that is endemic in the US. In Part 2 I tackled the problems with our national narrative, and in Part 3 I discussed inflation. This time around, we’re talking about the national debt.

The national debt is one of those problems that has been around for so long that it’s long since passed from being a point of mainstream discussion and moved on to almost being a fringe topic. It’s not even on the radar for the majority of our politicians, the majority of the time, to discuss the national debt. This is a real shame, because if you had to name one single factor that could lead to the downfall of our entire way of life in the next forty years, well… the national debt is near the top of that list.

This is not the first time I’ve written about this issue, but it does bear mentioning again in the context of this mini-series: the national debt should be paid down. This is a big deal. You should be freaking out just a little bit about this subject on a regular basis. Because it really is a problem, it really is going to cause major disruptions, and it really is not going to go away on its own.

“Ok, so what’s the problem?” I hear you ask. “We’ve been in debt my entire life, why is this a big deal? We can service the debt. We mostly owe money to ourselves. What’s the big deal, Allen? Why are you freaking out?”

Well, I’ll tell you why I’m freaking out, and I’ll do it in two words: opportunity cost. We’re currently spending about 10% of the federal budget on interest payments on the national debt. This is called “servicing the debt,” and you should note that I said interest payments, NOT payments to principal. As we continue to not reduce the debt, that interest payment will get bigger. And BIGGER. And BIGGER. Until it consumes a quarter, a third, however much of the federal budget it needs to in order to service the debt. Depending on how much we spend over the next few years, that number could get to be a significant (~20%) piece of the budget by the 2030s, and then it just keeps spiraling up.¹

The bigger the piece of the pie the debt consumes, the less everyone else has to eat. That’s a really, really big deal because, whether you like it or not, the federal government does a simply mind-boggling number of things that keep this nation running. Grant payments, regulatory inspections, infrastructure maintenance, records of industry standards, law enforcement, environmental controls, hazardous materials controls, all sorts of monitoring activities that everyone uses, orbital control, and a huge array of things that no one’s ever heard of but which are necessary to keep the wheels of our way of life on the track — that’s what our government does every day. And that’s not even touching healthcare, defense, or social security.

Never, ever, let anyone tell you that the US federal government is wasting money. I mean, yes, it’s not the most efficient procurement environment — but there are specific reasons why, and very few of them have to do with feckless federal spending or “useless” programs. And yes, there is always room for efficiency. But everything the federal government does is something that maintains some piece of the puzzle of why the US nation works.²

Whether you like the way the nation works is a different story. We can have reasonable disagreements about policy, and that is a good and healthy thing in society. But we absolute, positively, need a functional federal government to make this nation work, and history has very straightforward things to say about what happens when governments fail (short version: bad). I’m sure that your anarchist uncle is salivating at the prospect, but frankly he’s an idiot and you shouldn’t listen to anarchists.³

Now, with that being said, keeping the government appropriately funded is the absolute basic requirement of a functional state, which is why Congress will eventually and reliably raise the debt limit every year. Don’t think that we can avoid going into debt by simply not paying it, or that defaulting is an option. It doesn’t work for you at the personal level, and it most certainly does not work for nations. The creditors will come to collect. We have to service the debt, and that’s all there is to it.

At the same time, we have got to get used to the idea that we need to be doing more. We need to be paying it down. That’s much, much harder, which is why we haven’t managed to do it since Clinton left office. The core issue, as I have mentioned in prior articles, is that you could eliminate the federal government aside from the Department of Defense, Social Security, and the Department Health and Human Services, and we would still be in debt.

That means, in essence, that we have got to get military spending, medical spending, and retirement pension spending under control. And therein lies the problem. The military is a sacred cow, and you can’t cut either of the other two options without killing a bunch of old people (who vote!). No one wants to raise taxes (certainly not on themselves!) but at the same time we’ve demonstrated that voodoo economics do not work. So what, exactly, are we supposed to do here?

The answer is that we have to boil a frog.⁴ We have no “good” options. You can’t make big changes to any of these systems all at once; too many people and too many interests are invested in them. Similarly, a massive sudden increase in taxes is going to cause a ruckus. Instead, we have to make sustained, gradual changes to taxes, the military, and healthcare, just for starters.

None of this is news, and it shouldn’t be surprising.

Taxes

Taxes have got to go up — especially on the rich. The way that wealthy people avoid taxation in the US is tantamount to a crime. And yes, they could simply move their money out of the country, but that’s a problem that could be solved by a residency tax or increased property taxes for people of high net worth, or any one of a dozen other sneaky ideas. Just moving your money around isn’t enough to hide it in this modern, interconnected world. If you own a yacht, you should be paying a LOT of taxes.

And now for the hard-to-swallow part: yes, the middle class needs to be paying more taxes too. Simply bleeding the rich, as attractive an option as that is, isn’t enough. We’ve all benefitted from the current situation, and it will take everyone pulling together to get out of it.

None of this can be done overnight. You have to give people time to adjust; instead it should be done slowly, over a period of years, in line with other reforms to counter inflation.

The Military

We have got to cut our military budget. Yes, even in an uncertain world where we might need to fight China in the near future, they’re still at the other end of an ocean, and we should be leveraging alliances and soft power options to restrain them. And folks… that’s basically the list of people we might need to fight in the near future.

Any other conflict is kind of optional, and so far the list of scenarios where we might need to actually fight China includes an invasion of Taiwan and that’s it. I hate to say this, but if the most fortified island in the world can’t hold off the Chinese miliary, a carrier air group isn’t going to make a whole hell of a difference.

Russia isn’t a threat to us. Apparently, Europe can handle them with some cash investment and weapons supplies. Who knew. That’s a way cheaper option than us maintaining a huge military presence for deterrence.

Iran isn’t a threat to us. Yeah, sure, they support terrorists, but terrorists are wasps. You don’t fight wasps with nukes, you fight them with bug spray. We have nothing to gain from invading Iran at any point I can see in the near future, and so we shouldn’t be preparing to do so (and we aren’t; the military’s near-term goal is countering China, and see above).

North Korea isn’t a threat to us. They’re a threat to South Korea, but again, Ukraine has demonstrated quite clearly that there are cheaper ways to resist a low-tech, high-manpower hostile power than us extending our logistics chain to the other side of the world.

That’s… abasically all the hostile powers we have to worry about. No one else is even close, and every major industrial and military power on this planet other than those four countries are our allies. Despite everything we’re still living in the most peaceful time in human history. It’s time we started taking advantage of that.

In the past, America maintained a policy of ramping down military spending at the end of wars. We threw that out with the Cold War, because we were living in an era where a major conflict might kick off at any time. And then we maintained that posture into the post-Cold-War era because we were the last hegemonic⁵ power and our leaders liked it that way. Then we had the “War on Terror,” that miserable failure, which convinced everyone to keep military spending up for the past twenty years.

Guys. It’s time to stop, or at least slow down. If the War on Terror proved anything, it’s that using million dollar missiles to kill light insurgents is a waste of money. If Ukraine has proved anything, it’s that our military tech is so far ahead of the opposition that we can stall an invasion by any current hostile power using twenty year old weapons. And if the current geopolitical situation proves anything, it’s that the democracies of the world are still fully capable of banding together to fight hostile regimes.

The threat level, and I don’t care what you’ve heard from other people, is LOW. Our military spending should match that assessment. This will provoke howls from many quarters, but spending $800 billion a year to spread our military over an Earth that no longer requires that kind of dominance (and some would argue never did) isn’t a valid use of resources. We have better options, and better investments. We should take them.

That means we are past due to ramp down military spending. Slowly phasing out unneeded international bases, mothballing or retiring assets, and reducing the size of our standing forces are all past-due actions. We should no longer have the attitude that we need to be ready to fight a full-scale war at the drop of a hat (the Cold War is over). Instead, we should maintain robust research and development programs to continue to develop our warfighting technology, continue to make some purchases to maintain the military contracting system, but otherwise ramp our forces down to a more reasonable level.

Healthcare

Speaking of better investments, it is LONG past time for universal healthcare. Americans spend $4.3 trillion on healthcare annually, more than any other nation on Earth, and the quality of care we receive for that cost was already in trouble even before the pandemic. Now it’s worse. Everyone, every single person in America, suffers for this — because every one of us is just a bad illness away from bankruptcy, unless you’ve got millions of dollars. You know it. I know it. Why the fuck haven’t we fixed this?

The bottom line is that healthcare is an extremely tricky subject. There are a lot of systemic problems with our system — it’s too complicated, too fragmented, it has poor information sharing, regulation is all over the place from state to state, everything costs too much, and the average doctor is overwhelmed most of the time. We can’t get enough healthcare workers, the ones we do have are burning out (a classic labor death spiral), and even figuring out which doctor your insurance will let you go to is a chore.

Everything about the US system is overcomplicated and over-expensive, and it’s such a vastly complex problem that we are apparently the only nation on Earth that hasn’t figured it out: privatized healthcare as a national solution is an awful idea. The profit motive, when involved in healthcare, is a toxic incentive structure. And contrary to popular opinion, more money poured into healthcare does not automatically lead to better care; it just means that someone is lining their pockets.

There is an answer, it has been applied just about everywhere else in the developed world, and it is universal healthcare. I don’t actually care what you call it — Medicare for All, national insurance, Obamacare, whatever — the point is that you take the profit motive out, you put universal standards in, and you remove predatory players including insurance companies and for-profit healthcare systems, replacing them with not-for-profit, taxpayer subsidized, simple-to-access systems.

I know the capitalist narrative is that profit equals incentive and competition is good, and these things can be true. But when applied to healthcare, the profit incentive simply means “your money or your life,” since demand is near-infinite and supply is always limited. Capitalism doesn’t help here; it’s a perverse incentive.⁶

Yes, other nations have had problems with universal healthcare. It’s important to remember, though, that most problems with universal healthcare in recent years are acts of sabotage. The UK is a good example; the NHS is having trouble over there because (drumroll, please) right-wing politicians didn’t fund it. So they’re teetering on the edge of losing a very popular, very successful program because some very stupid people cut taxes too hard.⁷ If we adopt that type of program here, we must work very hard to keep stupid people out of power, which is admittedly always a challenge.

That being said, every nation which has adopted universal healthcare has a better healthcare equation in terms of cost vs. outcome than the US.⁸ Moving to universal healthcare is something we could do; it would take time, because the healthcare system in the US is a sprawling leviathan, but it should be done and must be done if we want to lower our healthcare costs.

Summing Up

You’ll notice that I didn’t address Social Security. There’s a reason for that: I don’t think we can change it. Not at the federal level, anyway. Social Security is the only option for millions of Americans because that’s the way the system was built, and path dependency is a thing.⁹ But we can, and should, change other things; and we can, and should, work to make it so that future Americans are not reliant on Social Security as their only form of support later in life.

To sum up, the national debt is a monster. It’s not a flashy, roaring beast, either, it’s a sneaky, stealthy, insidious creature that will strangle us all in our sleep if given the chance. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to make the changes that must be made in order to cut it down to size.

This isn’t just a matter of personal survival in this modern world; it’s a matter of national survival. It is an existential threat to our way of life and ability to survive as a nation. Something has to give. Call your congressmen and vote accordingly.

If you liked this article, check out the Modern Survival Guide, Volume I, and my current work on Volume II! It’s an utterly random assortment of things I think people ought to know; there’s something in there for everyone.

¹Math doesn’t care about your political opinion, and math has very specific things to say about compounding interest. For a more nuanced view , here’s an article that lays out the problem in more detail: https://www.pgpf.org/blog/2021/07/interest-costs-on-the-national-debt-projected-to-nearly-triple-over-the-next-decade

²Don’t you come at me about art programs either. Don’t do it. Art is one of the few reasons to stay alive, don’t you dare call it a bad use of resources. If you don’t want to listen to me on that subject, maybe listen to Winston Churchill, who said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them.”

³The problem with the idea of anarchy is a whole is that, if no one needs governments, why is it that we look around throughout the entire span of recorded history and see governments popping up every time there’s a power vacuum? And why do such awful things happen when governments fail? The short answer is that people aren’t angels, and not everyone is a super-empowered individual who can survive chaos. If I have to choose between an imperfect government and the chaos of anarchy, I will choose the imperfect government every time — because any government, even an imperfect one, creates certainties in the environment which allow for forward planning. Enough other people apparently feel the same way that, sure enough, whenever there’s a power vacuum a new governmental structure almost instantly pops up to fill the void. The slightly longer answer is that most anarchist thought simply boils down to a petty rejection of authority, which is only useful up to a certain point, after which it becomes a form of mental masturbation.

⁴For those of you who don’t know that term, the old wives’ tale is that to boil a frog, you don’t dunk it a pot of boiling water. It’ll just jump out. Instead, you put in a pot of cool water and slowly raise the temperature until it boils. The frog doesn’t notice the gradual increase, and so doesn’t jump out of the pot. This doesn’t work in real life, but it’s a good metaphor, especially for a proposal which is also not likely to be put in place in real life.

⁵A hegemon or hegemonic power is a nation with dominant influence over others. In other words, a superpower.

⁶A perverse incentive is an incentive that prompts people toward the opposite action of what you want them to do.

⁷Say it with me again: voodoo economics does not work. Trickle-down economics is a failed experiment. Cutting taxes does not equate to economic prosperity, and economic prosperity does not necessarily equate to more tax revenue.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3633404/

https://www.healthsystemtracker.org/chart-collection/quality-u-s-healthcare-system-compare-countries/

Path Dependency is a phenomenon where many different options are all dependent on one choice that was made so far back, people don’t realize it was a choice at all. Examples include the QWERTY keyboard and road width standards.

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