NYT columnist David Brooks has a thoughtful column out today called “The Next Culture War” that suggests that the shameful levels of debt our country is now carrying are a moral issue. He’s got a great point, I think, though I disagree with him on a number of matters (the “culture wars” and the issues raised in them are actually of great importance, easy as they are to skewer intellectually).
Here’s the bottom line of his argument:
In 1960, Americans’ personal debt amounted to about 55 percent of national income. By 2007, Americans’ personal debt had surged to 133 percent of national income.
Over the past few months, those debt levels have begun to come down. But that doesn’t mean we’ve re-established standards of personal restraint. We’ve simply shifted from private debt to public debt. By 2019, federal debt will amount to an amazing 83 percent of G.D.P. (before counting the costs of health reform and everything else). By that year, interest payments alone on the federal debt will cost $803 billion.
Here’s his conclusion:
These may seem like dry numbers, mostly of concern to budget wonks. But these numbers are the outward sign of a values shift. If there is to be a correction, it will require a moral and cultural movement.
Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.
This is, I think, a remarkable point in a provocative piece. The debt in which we as individuals and as a country find ourselves is most assuredly a moral issue. The Bible has a great deal to say about debt (see Proverbs 22:7 for starters). And here’s an Al Mohler radio program from a few years back that deals nicely with the moral issue of debt.
On a societal level, this is tricky business, because character is not popular right now and people feel very little connection to the greater project that is society. Those who bury themselves in debt don’t realize that this has huge consequences for society, especially when such behavior is multiplied by millions and millions of people all overextending their resources.
There are times to take on debt. It’s not all bad. Sometimes you have to take it on. But we would do well to remember that it is not simply a fiscal issue, a monetary preference (or not). It’s an issue that has deeply biblical overtones–and personal and societal consequences.