National debt hits World War II levels, for no good reason

National debt hits World War II levels, for no good reason

February 18th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

More than 400,000 American service members died during the period of U.S. involvement in World War II, starting in 1941 and ending with Allied victory in 1945.

While those deaths were tragedies for friends and family back home and for our entire nation, the threat posed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan left the United States no choice but to fight with all we had.

That required the full mobilization of America's economy and resources, which was enormously costly in dollar terms. But of course the alternative -- defeat at the hands of the Nazis and Japanese -- was unthinkable. Therefore, most Americans probably did not question the need for the federal government to borrow whatever money it took to secure victory.

Just how deep in debt did we go?

Well, figures from the U.S. Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget indicate that by 1946, the national debt represented a staggering 122 percent of our gross domestic product. GDP is the total value of all goods and services produced in our country in one year. So during that time period, we actually owed more than all that we produced in a year.

Fortunately, that painful economic circumstance did not last. Our debt soon fell below GDP and stayed there.

Until very recently, that is.

In 2011 -- for the first time since the late 1940s -- the national debt once again exceeded America's total economic output. The debt came to 103 percent of GDP.

But why?

It is true that we have been fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. It is also true that those wars have exacted a painful toll in both blood and treasure.

But by no means were those conflicts -- even combined with the broader war on terrorism -- anywhere nearly as broad in scope as World War II was.

Why, then, has our national debt again climbed almost to the alarming heights it reached by the end of World War II? Sure, there is waste in national defense just as in any area of government, but it is irrational to blame our current debt crisis strictly on defense spending.

The reality is, we are choosing -- voluntarily and in a multitude of ways -- to spend vastly more money year after year than our country takes in. We are now in our fourth consecutive year of trillion-dollar-plus budget deficits, with our total debt exceeding $15.3 trillion.

In the midst of that crisis, President Barack Obama has proposed another year of massive deficit spending -- more money for infrastructure, more money for "green energy" schemes and so forth. And he has made it plain that he has little interest in significant spending reductions.

"We can't just cut our way into growth," the president said in making his big-spending budget proposal.

But how would he know? When has he tried? His entire presidency has been one attempt after another to spend our way into growth, and it hasn't worked. The $862 billion stimulus was a grab bag of dashed job growth expectations and deeper debt. Unemployment is far higher today than it was supposed to be if Congress approved the stimulus. Widespread home foreclosures continue, and the president's costly initiatives to stem that tide have, by his own admission, failed. Historically high numbers of Americans are now on food stamps as well.

Meanwhile, the president gives short shrift to serious reforms that would make Medicare and Social Security solvent for the long term, and so the day when they will go broke gets ever closer.

We are fortunate not to face a global conflict on the scale of World War II. But it is high time we insisted that Congress and the president "declare war" on federal spending that is pushing us not toward military defeat but toward economic calamity.