J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

A Nation's Debts (beyond the fiscal)

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 zerohedge.com 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.

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Tau Ceti — let’s go!

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6 Comments

  1. The one thing I didn’t see you specifically mention in this very excellent post (with which I agree on every point!), is a global problem that affects all of us more or less equally – the exponential curve of human population growth. We’re well on our way to exhausting our available resources – a problem many in the world can’t even begin to consider because they don’t know if they’ll eat again today – a much more pressing and immediate problem for them. How can someone attempt something great when there’s no food in their stomach to fuel their brain? How can they use a brain that’s never been educated? Why would they even care when they can’t see out of the “hole” they live in? That list of questions could go on and on. Society is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. The most disadvantaged are having the most children – children they can’t afford to feed, educate or lift out of the mire. The advantaged can wall themselves in somewhere – that’ll continue to work for them for some time yet, I suspect – sooner or later, however, all will come to roost. I’m with you – by all means, let’s get our shit together and keep trying. To do less or give up is too depressing and if those of us who ARE thinking about all this don’t act, who will?. I’m afraid, though, dear friend, that you’re preaching to the choir……;-) I wish you had a wider audience.

    • I actually worry about the effects of depopulation more … most countries (including the U.S.) are on track to experience Japan’s demographic problems. How can an economic system based on perpetual growth continue when the world’s population starts to decline around 2050? More on this topic here:
      http://jdmoyer.com/2011/03/25/how-it-might-go-down/

      Thanks for your kind wishes re: my audience growing. The growth of readership has exceeded my wildest expectations. Approaching half a million page views, with over a thousand visits a day on average. Over 20K views from reddit.com the other day — hit the front page!

  2. Linda Lancione

    Hi John-David,

    I read every single one of these, of course, with great interest. So glad you’re doing this and getting so many readers. This one is particularly inspired, imho.

    Love,

    Mom

  3. Good news on your readership ! ! I have concerns about depopulation, also – mainly because it’s the educated, thoughtful people who are declining in number while those who have nothing (and even less to look forward to in their future) are propogating like crazy. Of course there is a form of attrition built into that second population – many of their children die at a young age from one kind of deprivation or another and many die from medical causes that are preventable or curable for the more fortunate elsewhere. I’ll take a pass here and won’t comment on TV images of starving, miserable children. You’re welcome. I picked up your link and read your prior post (and the excellent and, as usual, thoughtful comments). I find myself on the fence – people met and engaged one-on-one can seem fairly reasonable – put them in a “herd” and they sometimes morph into a nightmare (such as our current Congress, for example). I see such potential in the human mind – and such limits. At age 63, I’m starting to think I may get outta here just in time…..but I’d rather stick around to see that first trip to (probably) Mars! Where is our next Einstein, I wonder? And which will we see first – Einstein or Stanley Kubrick? Geez! I just hate this level of uncertainty! 😀

  4. Optimists make the world because pessimists don’t even try.

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