THE BLOG
10/23/2012 11:13 am ET | Updated Dec 23, 2012

In Defense of Debt

I carry a lot of personal debt -- around $50,000 in student loans from undergraduate and graduate school combined. Some of this is my own fault -- I decided not to teach in North Carolina as my undergraduate scholarship mandated, mostly because of the lack of legal protections for LGBT teachers. Then, I decided to take out some debt to attend Harvard because, well, it's Harvard. But when I first started making payments on this debt, I felt this visceral sense of dread, as if I were watching my paycheck slowly drip away for many, many years to come. And I think that most people bring this fear and loathing to any discussion of debt -- the idea that you are mortgaging yourself in the present on the uncertain promise of a better future.

When many reasonable people consider the debt held by the United States, they compare it to themselves and their own personal debts. They think, well of course we have to repay as much money as quickly possible in order to get rid of these balances and to stop accumulating interest. Republicans in particular have a knack for equating the finances of an entire country to our individual financial woes.

These comparisons are misleading, and they're wrong. Every American should know why this mentality, this irrational individualism, is so damaging to our national economics, our country's credit rating, and our very way of life.

On Monday night, President Obama and former Governor Romney finally mentioned sequestration in the third and final debate. Previously, only Vice President Biden used it in his browbeating of Congressman Paul Ryan, saying, "I know we don't want to use the fancy word 'sequester.'" Romney used it on Monday to talk about ship construction and how we will surely lose to the Spanish Armada if the cuts go into place.

Confused by all of this? Here it is, plain and simple: if sequestration takes effect, meaning that Congress is unable to agree on a budget by the end of the year, there will be an automatic 8.2 percent cut in virtually every single federal program. Nothing will be spared. The impacts of a failure to act are immediate and real -- I have to sit down this week and come up with a budget that somehow cuts 8.2 percent of our TRIO program costs, in case sequestration should happen.

The upcoming fiscal cliff is real and shockingly under-reported. Think about what will happen if 8.2 percent of our police force is cut. Of federal education aid to states. Of our cancer research programs. Of our veterans' benefits.

When Romney attacks Obama for not presenting a second term agenda, I find myself grudgingly agreeing. Obama hasn't even given us a plan for the next three months to deal with the impending crisis -- in fact, he has actively asked government contractors not to discuss the possibility of layoffs. Though I will certainly be voting for him, I consider this cop-out a true failure of courage and leadership and a missed opportunity for his campaign. In this last debate he stated that sequestration wouldn't happen, but we have no idea how he will prevent it.

In his defense, the president has some difficulty in making a compelling argument because of the seductiveness of Republican economic talking points. Republicans want you to think of the government as an extension of yourself, or as a business. It's bad for you to carry debt. It's bad for your local bank to be indebted. But please remember:

1. A government is not a person.

2. A government is not a business.

The government is not a reckless twenty-something with massive credit card debt. The government is infinitely more complicated than one person can articulate or represent. At its core, our government is a social compact among all of us. In case we've forgotten:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Sequestration would jeopardize a) the timely administration of justice b) domestic tranquility in our streets c) the common military defense of our nation d) the general welfare of all of our citizens, both rich and poor, and e) the prosperity of all of our businesses, big and small. Carrying debt as a country does not carry these same risks -- a government does not operate an income-based repayment plan. But our government does have the responsibility to educate all of its children, protect its citizenry, and establish justice for all. And while Republicans malign President Obama as a European socialist, he has taken the precisely opposite path from European austerity -- and we are so much the better for it.

We should remember that good debt is an investment in our future, not the destruction of it. A burgeoning economy will solve our debt crisis more than anything else, but an 8.2 percent slash at our jugular will send us on the path toward Greece.

There is no debt crisis because the current administration has handled our recovery incrementally. Our credit rating dropped because of Republican radicals refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a consequence of their dangerous, overly-simplistic economic philosophy. I fear that a Romney administration, captive to these Tea Partiers, would be unable to stop the red tide of spending cuts that would bleed our country dry.

And in case you were wondering, I don't regret my debt, not a penny of it.

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