Landfill debt.

Landfill debt.

Software coders use the phrase “technical debt” to refer to aspects of an application that are poorly designed and might cause trouble down the road. Hard-coded references, non-normalized data-structures, and opaque functions that do too many things all contribute to a project’s technical debt.

It’s a helpful concept, and one that makes me consider kinds of debt beyond fiscal/financial.

The national debt consists of public debt (money the U.S. government owes its citizens, corporations, and foreign governments) and debt held by governmental accounts, including the Social Security Trust fund. Here’s a simple breakdown of U.S. Federal Debt compiled by Steve Conover of The Skeptical Optimist, taken from this article:

Who do we owe?

Who do we owe?

The current U.S. debt is about the same as our annual GDP. This worries some people. I don’t know enough about economics to know if I should worry about this statistic or not. Economists who seem credible to me seem to lean towards reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio by encouraging economic growth. Gold-bugs like Ron Paul and the bears over at are totally freaking out about the size of the national debt and are hoarding gold coins, canned food, and bullets. They insist we’re “past the point of no return” in terms of a bloated out-of-control fiat currency and that Nigerian-style hyperinflation and social collapse are right around the corner.

Who to believe?

While I will admit to a small hoard of canned food and gold coins, it’s not the fiscal debt that worries me most. There are other kinds of national debt that reduce a nation’s productivity and can even edge it towards collapse.

Like what?

The U.S. carries a large infrastructure debt, with an aging, inefficient power grid, laughably slow internet, and old-ass railways and airports. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave U.S. infrastructure a “D” grade back in 2009 (the next infrastructure report will be released March 19th). I think Obama missed a huge opportunity by not pushing for more and bigger public works programs after the 2008 economic crisis (which would have also boosted employment).

As a nation we carry several kinds of social debt too. Racial debt, for being a country that has had legal slavery for 38% of its short history. Another is income inequality, which breeds resentment and dissatisfaction among neighbors and neighboring communities.

We carry a health debt; more and more we are a nation of obese people with respiratory, cardiovascular, and blood-sugar control problems.

Other countries carry far more debt than we do in certain areas. India carries a huge debt in terms of women’s rights and safety. China carries huge debts in terms of pollution, government corruption, and income inequality. Japan has a serious demographic debt (too many old people and not enough young people).

Environmentally we’re doing much better than China, but there are signs of serious regress with our new love of fracking, and the transfer of public lands to private interests.

What about moral debt? For decades, after World War 2, the United States held the world’s moral high ground. More recently, adventurism in the Middle East, our freedom-eroding “end justifies the means” war against terrorism, and remote control drone strikes that murder civilians have all eroded our pride. So has our mediocre treatment of the innocent poor (children) within our own borders.

How do we pay our debts? It’s a lot of work, but not complicated. We rein in the most severe of our budget excesses (foreign invasions), and launch massive (but relatively cheap) preventative health campaigns to reduce long-term medical costs. We invest in infrastructure, education, and scientific research, which all pay huge dividends a few decades down the road. We make our tax system more progressive to curb income inequality.

How do we repay our moral/ethical debts, and regain the moral high ground in our own eyes and the eyes of the world?

We should fund, build, and discover things that contribute to the welfare of all humankind. An effective asteroid tracking program. A space elevator, so we don’t have a waste a buttload of rocket fuel every time we want to get up out of our gravity armchair. Publicly-funded scientific research that goes into the global public domain. A mission to Tau Ceti.

Big, expensive projects? Definitely — but all excellent investments in our economy and national spirit.

If we don’t pay our debts and come up with a new sense of national purpose, inertia will lead us to more divisiveness, mediocrity, isolationism, cultural Balkanization, dirty energy, bankruptcy (of every kind), and boring, purposeless lives. If not outright collapse, then gradual, depressing decline.

So let’s get our shit together, unite, and get some cool stuff done.


Tau Ceti — let’s go!