The politics behind the US debt is misleading because there are very few serious economists involved in the politics of our debt.
For starters, deficit spending often has great future dividends. The promotion of education, infrastructure, and research & development generate impressive profits in long-term tax dividends because of the economic growth that inevitably follows an educated populace, more sustainable cities, and general technological advances.
Promoting education is extremely beneficial because an educated citizenry tends to start new businesses, create new products, and even revolutionize whole industries. By subsidizing public universities, student loans, tuition forgiveness, etc., there is no better way for a national government to boost its economy and future potential than ensuring that the country’s energetic, young graduates are not too saddled with debt to be able to accomplish the things they just learned how to do. Subsidized education pays future dividends many times over its initial investment as tax revenues increase while college graduates are allowed to freely expand the economy, earn higher salaries, and spend more money.
America proved this with one of the most spectacular examples of economic expansion ever: the post-war G.I. Bill. America sent millions of returned soldiers to college to get a free education, and it turned America into the richest, most developed nation in history. It was one one of the most economically impactful governmental programs in the history of the world. Democratic socialism for the massive win.
Infrastructure likewise gives a huge return on investment. Any dollars spent modernizing our energy and transportation industries streamline our economy, and the spending brings down the cost of just about everything we use in our daily lives. National renovations in infrastructure make our economy more dynamic here at home, and more accessible abroad. As our exports get cheaper, America gets more competitive in foreign markets, which makes American life, in general, more convenient.
Our interstate waterways, railways and highways are classic examples of this. Before mechanized land travel crossing individual states took weeks, so the government invested in great canals to ease transport on natural and manmade waterways. Travel in the mid-1800s from East to West across the Oregon trail took months, so for efficiency the US government decided to subsidize massive trans-continental railroad projects. When the post-war suburban migration began, the government (courtesy of Eisenhower, a Republican—gasp!) intelligently financed an incredibly useful interstate highway system that surely no libertarian regrets today.
These were all epic conveniences for American society, but the government did not stop there. Airports and seaports all across America were built throughout the 20th Century for even better transportation and travel capability. As a result of the government’s infrastructure projects Americans can drive from the east coast to the west coast in days rather than months, or fly in just a matter of hours by plane. And the risk of dying from dysentery or snake bites while traveling is dramatically lower. Imagine an alternate America in which the government never took a liberal lead in trans-continental travel and transport. In this America there are no Amazon Prime two-day shipping guarantees.
These historic efforts prove the valuable role a public government can play in society, and that conservatives do not quite have a sensible grasp on the limits of a purely private economy. What private enterprise would ever fund a national highway system benefitting thousands of cities by itself at great cost? Only a public government can be so societally-focused on epic public projects, and it pays for itself—with profit—in long-term economic expansion.
Of the three major types of economic investment, however, research & development is perhaps the best way for a government to build its own prosperous future. And, again, no private enterprise is as selflessly long-term thinking as a national government. It is extremely expensive to stay on the cutting edge of science, and it truly takes the massive scale of a national economy and hundreds of millions of taxpayers to fund things like NASA and space exploration, which has led to more consumer products that you use every day than you likely have ever thought about: water purifiers, memory foam, UV-protected sunglasses, baby formula, just to name a fraction of the countless technologies gained from scientific endeavor). Advancements in research and development by NASA and the military have truly revolutionized the entire world. It is nearly impossible to quantify how many of the conveniences in our daily life are due to government spending on innovation.
The contemporary conservative opposition to any kind of governmental intervention in the economy unless its a tax cut disproportionately aimed at already rich people goes against the outstanding history of societal progress following governmental spending. A 65-year economic analysis by the Congressional Research Service shows that economic growth correlates impressively with tax increases adopted by presidents of both parties (props to George H.W. Bush, the only economically sensible Republican president in decades). Conservatives aren’t interested in the kind of science that disproves their blind-faith, ideological delusions, but the reality is that conservatism is an economic sham. Tax cuts do not work, have never worked, and will not ever work like conservatives promise.
The fact is that Democrats grow the economy much more with economic investment than Republicans grow the economy with tax cuts. This is especially true during economic downturns because deficit spending can be used effectively to promote long-term growth and generate profits to jumpstart a stagnant economy. It is why President Obama’s economic record has been so impressive, despite—and in spite of—pavlovian, conservative opposition. By the vast majority of economic markers, the US is more prosperous and stable because the Obama Administration has effectively utilized deficit spending.
If you’re not rich, a vote for conservatism is a vote against your own personal and national interest.