From Zero to Zillion, Who Still Cares About the National Debt?

Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Nihil. None. Not a thing. Not a one. Not a dime, not a nickel, not a penny. Damn all. Diddly-squat. Goose eggs. *Hits archaic section of thesaurus.* Nought. Bupkis. Not a… dicky bird?

Those are all the adjectives President Joe Biden would use to describe the cost of his colossal infrastructure bill, if only he’d subject himself to media inquiry for more than a spare minute. (Biden seems like the kind of greying duff who’d drop a word like “bupkis” on the regular.) Instead, the President has one of dozens of faceless interns tweet out this bald nonsense: “My Build Back Better Agenda costs zero dollars.”

Your malarkey (to borrow another Bidenism) meter should be sounding like a klaxon upon reading “zero dollars.” The only thing that doesn’t cost greenbacks anymore is the mini-wiener sample of Costco, and even then, the bulk retailer practically stuffs a 150-roll Charmin pack in your cart as a fee of entry.

How on all of blue Earth does Biden expect us to believe an omnibus spending package that reportedly spends $3.5 trillion will actually ring up as “on the house”?

Simple. He’s using an ancient and innovative rhetorical technique known as: insisting on it. And he’s not the only one spouting this crankish innumeracy. His fellow Democrats are repeating the line. “The dollar amount, as the president said, is zero,” claimed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. White House press feeder, Jen Psaki, also regurgitated her boss’s talker about the costless bill.

Apologies to Godwin, but this kind of repetition of faulty finance is redolent of Goebbels. Yet Biden, Pelosi, et al, aren’t so much as lying as they are talking in a rounded way about the cost of the B³ bill. What “zero” means is that the cost won’t add to the national debt, which is $28 trillion and counting. That’s a pleasant thought in and of itself, but not at all convincing, given that the projection is based on future tax revenues, which is a non-static target given how behavior changes in regards to increased government pilfering. The no-added-debt assumption is also predicated on the fantastical notion that bureaucrats will only spend their congressionally allotted outlays—a jejune proposition that should have long been banned from civics textbooks.

Still, that Biden and his Dem cohorts are eager to mask their spendapalooza in the language of fiscal discipline is curious—maybe even a positive development. It demonstrates sensitivity to the ballooning national debt, even if the rhetorical ploy is an attempt to sweep the legs out from the typical Republican argument about pecuniary responsibility.

President Biden, with a liberal-majority Congress, could easily say he doesn’t give a toss about the upping integers on the national-debt clock. And who could cross him? Republicans, who abetted trillions of debt accumulation under Donald Trump? Pleaseeee. Republicans relinquished any claim to monetary prudence, not when they spent ducks and drakes combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, which was, for all its misdirection and faults, forgivable, but for failing to rein in spending after cutting taxes across the board four years ago.

As Matt Yglesias points out, much of what’s in Biden’s infrastructure package is popular with voters. Outside of the Tea Party boomlet, Americans have never shown a general aversion to Washington’s squanderous ways. After all, the realpolitik truism that every tax dollar spent benefits someone isn’t shaken by quoting long Hayek passages. Biden could easily say nuts to the debt, he wants to unleash an expenditure deluge on the country, let the bond market do what it will.

But he’s not. He’s couching his pitch in fiscal terms that Republicans should find comforting. And two stubborn mules in his coalition—senators Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin—are objecting to the $3.5 trillion price estimate itself. And the loyal opposition is bewailing the cost, like a dog howling at the moon.

The discourse is haunted by the fear that our massing national debt will beget fiscal calamity. Even after a near tripling of the debt in half as many years, even when the average voter is unwilling to sacrifice his pet outlay, the profligate pols by the Potomac still pay lip service to that pesky in-hock clock as it grows like a dark cloud in the nation’s firmament. It’s a testament to the very real, if tacit, foreboding feeling most Americans share about Washington frittering away the future on the present.

There are naysayers: some progressive cranks insist the debt is imaginary and that the Federal Reserve can create money ex nihilo in aeternum. Some liberal talking heads insist America faces no “brutal fiscal reality” because… well… because. A guy with a primetime MSNBC gabble hour says so, so there! Then there’s one of the premier conservative columnists in the country claiming that Biden is going too small, and that chintzy Uncle Sam needs to unfurl his crabbed fingers and drop $4 trillion to “redistribute dignity,” as if self-respect is conferred by a Treasure check.

Biden isn’t taking cues from these wishcasting commentators, thank goodness. He’s still dealing in arithmetical hokum. He’s still deploying slippery verbiage to sell his eye-poppingly expensive bill. But he’s doing so while acknowledging what’s become a quaint concern: that those bastards in Congress are spending too much taxpayer money.

Plus ça change. Even in Washington.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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