The Trump administration’s plan to pump $1.5 trillion into infrastructure improvements would certainly benefit Utah, which has its share of roadways and bridges in need of replacement or repair. And while we like the idea of investing in the nation’s vital transportation and utility systems, the scope and nature of the overall $4.4 trillion budget proposal, and the administration’s acknowledgment it will lead to larger future deficits, leaves us concerned and perplexed.
Concerned, because we are skeptical that robust economic growth alone will serve to sufficiently reduce a national debt now in the range of $14 trillion, or 77 percent of the economy. Perplexed, because self-proclaimed fiscally conservative Republicans in Congress seem so willing to blithely discount the fact that the administration’s projections show the budget package will negatively impact future debt levels, which are already historically high.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes was present when the president unveiled his infrastructure initiative, applauding what could be of particular value to rural areas in Utah struggling to keep up with the financial burdens of maintaining local roads and other public facilities. Hughes represents a party, however, that has long championed policies to reduce the nation’s debt — a position that now appears not only to have lost political favor, but is also rarely even mentioned in the context of the proposed spending plan that candidly projects $7.2 trillion in new deficits over the course of a decade.
Only five years ago, 81 percent of Republicans and those leaning Republican listed reducing the deficit as their top priority, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Today, follow-up polling shows it’s fallen to 14th on the list of priority issues, with just 48 percent of Republicans saying it is a top priority. This is no doubt due in part to an improving economic outlook, but on some level, the polling suggests that large numbers of GOP loyalists see increased spending that leads to higher debt is only a problem if it happens under a Democratic administration.
Regardless of prevailing political winds, the nation’s debt is no trivial matter. As a percentage of the gross domestic product, it has only been larger during the peak years of World War II. The current administration’s budgetary attitude could bind us to a pathway that would result in the debt becoming so large, the nation would be unable to pay its bills without inflating the dollar and paying higher interest rates on borrowed money. It could come to the point that even robust levels of economic prosperity would fail to funnel enough capital into the nation’s coffers to significantly reduce long-term liabilities.36 comments on this story
In other words, the can may be kicked only so far down the road before it kicks us back. Investing in infrastructure is important, and it’s good to see increased attention paid to the matter, but any new spending proposals should be met with a sober assessment of what they might do to the mountainous debt the nation currently carries. There seems to be a prevailing assumption among Washington’s current leadership that increasing debt in the short term is a way to bring it down in the long term by triggering new prosperity. We expect our nation’s leaders to be forthright on whether such an expectation is sturdy enough to justify a spending package that could further mortgage the country’s fiscal stability.