In the last 20 years, our country’s national debt has exploded. In 2001, when George W. Bush took office, the national debt was $5.8 trillion. It took around 225 years — booms, busts, depressions, wars, etc. — to amass that much national debt. In just eight years, Bush and a compliant Congress doubled the number to $11.7 trillion. In Barack Obama’s two terms, another $8.6 trillion was added. During the past four years, Donald Trump and Congress fought many battles, but not over this: In that time, America’s future was mortgaged to the tune of another $6.7 trillion. Today, the national debt is around $27 trillion, a four-fold increase in the last two decades. That doesn’t count unfunded mandates. And there is no end in sight.
Whenever human beings gather to accomplish a task, any task, without strong and effective oversight, a natural evolution takes place. Whether it be in business, academia, philanthropy or government, every activity morphs from the original goal to self-aggrandizement. In government, this process is particularly toxic. There are no profits, let alone a profit motive. No concern with productivity. No incentive to turn off the proverbial lights. No measure of success. No motivation to end counterproductive activities.
Add to this mix the influence of public employee unions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman were opposed to them for reasons that long ago became apparent. The goal of all unions is self-preservation – just as management’s is to maximize profits. But public employee unions add two other noxious elements to the mix: (1) defending job incompetence and (2) heavy-handed involvement in the electoral process in a search for pliant politicians who can help them achieve their objectives by spending ever more of the public’s money.
Now, out of the blue, the experts-for-hire have a new scheme to justify continued fiscal irresponsibility: modern monetary theory. It holds that so long as interest rates are lower than inflation rates, politicians can spend away. That is not a theory. It is idle wordplay, and the victim of such sophistry is the American taxpayer – and future generations of American taxpayers.
Never in our history has fiscal soundness been more important. The exploding annual deficits of the last 20 years have produced a national debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product that is as high as it was during World War II even though our nation is at peace. Moreover, many severely underfunded programs such as Social Security and Medicaid are not included in today’s debt calculations, although they should be.
The passage of a 5,593-page must-pass-quickly bill in December was indisputable evidence that the national debt will never be addressed from the top down. That legislation was sent to the Senate two hours before the vote. Who can read 2,800 pages per hour, 47 pages per minute? How can responsible lawmakers vote on bills they have not read? While our political leaders have repeatedly told us how important this bill was to the survival of so many Americans, they delayed the bill for months for political reasons. A crucial-to-the-survival-of-so-many-Americans pork-filled bill? Some $10 million to Pakistan for “gender programs”? Another $700 million to Sudan for Lord knows what? And on and on and on.
History has a clear and repeated message: If we do not address this exploding debt, it will bring to life all-knowing leaders, leaders who Friedrich Hayek said possessed the “fatal conceit.” They think they know more than is knowable. Leaders who have all the answers for everything they define as a problem: More regulations. More government control. More taxes. This is a noxious cure that has never succeeded, one that has left country after country in economic tatters.
Fortunately, the world in changing. Today, we have the means to address this financial irresponsibility, this threat to our country as our founders envisioned it. We are immersed in the Information Age, the Big Data world, the Cloud world, the Bitcoin world. The cost of communications is close to zero. Smartphones, iPads, and computers are a crucial part of everyday life. With the touch of a finger, one click, information on every topic is available 24 hours a day. Buy anything. Sell anything. Today, instant access to information is embedded in our culture. Why should government expenditures be exempt?
Transparency has always been the best antidote to rein in profligate government spending. Having instant information at our fingertips gives fiscally responsible Americans a powerful new weapon in the War on Waste. Today, there is no reason why every local, state, and federal government expenditure is not online, in real-time, available to every citizen. Taxpayers should be able to attend a school board meeting and pull up school expenses on their phones.
OpenTheBooks has a formidable weapon to unleash the voting public’s ability to address this exploding national debt, this lack of transparency, this threat to our democracy — the OpenTheBooks Government Expenditure Library, which contains over 5 billion (and growing) local, state, and federal government expenditures. Last year, we filed 41,500 Freedom of Information Act requests. We sued several government entities to encourage them to provide us the same information we collect from other states.
The OpenTheBooks Government Expenditure Library is open to everyone: Citizens. Politicians. Students. Academics. Scholars. Journalists. Think tanks. Everyone — 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
Transparency can be as revolutionary as the Internet has been for the economic well-being of the world. Transparency can not only enhance the odds of the survival of this, the greatest country in the history of the world but, over time, it will contribute to our prosperity, our health, and our happiness. Wasted taxpayer dollars are not just nonproductive. Waste allowed to exist encourages more waste. Fraud allowed to exist encourages more fraud. A financially sound economy, one that works to remove waste, fraud, duplication, and incompetence, will increase respect for government, for the rule of law.
OpenTheBooks places the future of this great country more firmly in the hands of the voters. To ensure our elected officials realize this, we have to communicate continuously with them what we expect and how we will vote. I suggest we begin with one clear public statement: “I will never vote for anyone who has voted for a bill they have not read.”
Obviously, our elected officials are unwilling to address this explosive, increasingly crucial national debt problem. Fortunately, we the taxpaying voters today have a weapon at our fingertips to successfully wage a War on Waste. Successful because our political leaders will quickly recognize that if they want to be reelected, they will have to respond accordingly.
Thomas W. Smith is chairman of OpenTheBooks.com.