Debt and Isaac Newton’s Law of Political Mechanics

Charlie Arlinghaus

September 2, 2015

As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader

Political candidates insist on talking about trees and trust you will ignore the forest. The federal budget mess becomes a bigger and bigger problem because they know you don’t care about the big picture and can be counted on to ignore their pathetic record. The federal budget cannot and will not be balanced simply because it doesn’t have to be balanced and you don’t care that your politicians don’t care.

Last week the Congressional Budget Office released its semi-annual budget report and no one particularly noticed. It was a shame because the numbers suggest growing debt and endless deficits don’t have to be the accepted norm and might easily be erased.

Yet did any of the myriad presidential contenders wandering aimlessly about the state take notice and use it as the starting point for a discussion of responsibility? Not a one. Not only that, they didn’t because you don’t want them to because you find discussions of reality boring.

Almost every American and certainly every politician believes in theory that it is a bad idea for the government to spend more than it takes in. We and they accept that growing debt, fueled by deficits are theoretically bad. At that point, we stop talking about it and they do absolutely nothing in Washington about it and we don’t care.

The recent report suggests that the task is not Herculean. In the fiscal year that ends September 30, the federal government will spend $3.7 trillion. Over the next ten years, federal spending is projected to grow at an annual rate of 5%.

If the rate of growth were held to 3.1% instead of 5.0%, the budget would be balanced in ten years. The budget would still grow. It would grow faster than the rate of inflation. Spending would increase by more than $1.3 trillion. This isn’t anything resembling a cut. It isn’t even a freeze. But it is completely beyond the reach of the people we send to Washington.

In the last 45 years, we have run deficits in all but the last four years of the Clinton administration. Actually, I’m a little surprised there hasn’t been at least one presidential candidate mentioning that fact to us.

The budget was balanced then because it became a political fight between a Democratic president and a Republican congress to see who was more serious about living within our means. Today there is a similar bipartisan consensus in the other direction. Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to be forced to do anything in particular. There are no goals and no targets and no requirements to do much of anything about the problem except a small amount of hand wringing at election time.

When politicians are not forced to do something, political forces push them to do nothing. Isaac’s Newton’s first law of motion restated Galileo on inertia finding: every object persists in its state of being unless compelled to change by force impressed. This may be the foundation of classical mechanics but it is in fact all you need to know to understand political mechanics.

Political inertia compels politicians to keep doing what they are doing unless forced to change. The federal government rarely requires any change. Budgets don’t have to be balanced so they aren’t. They can’t be without some external force applied to the amorphous gravitational blobs who serve as politicians.

The 1994 elections served as a bizarre and irresistible force acting on the political universe. A group of Republicans attacked the atrophying Congress for not acting quickly enough to balance the budget. The switch to Republican control was something that hadn’t happened in a few generations and shocked the survivors.

The new legislators thought they had a mandate. That mandate and unexpected victory acted as a force on the incumbent president who figured re-election was only possible by absorbing the new force.

Today, there is no force, just an agreement to not change too much. One possibility is for all of us to force them to talk about slowing down spending growth but voters don’t seem to care too much. A better choice is legislation with forced and declining deficit targets like the old Gramm-Rudman law. If the target isn’t met then everything without exception gets limited proportionately to reach the target.

If we don’t force them to do something, they will keep doing nothing.

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