Privacy Policy

As I See It: National Debt

September 10, 2018

The mathematical peril of debt came forcefully to my awareness when I received my bank’s statement for my first mortgage payment of $246. Of that payment, I was informed that $241 went to pay interest and only $5 to retire principal. Convinced that there must have been a gross error, I went to the bank to challenge their report. No, the loan office replied, that’s standard for a 30 year mortgage.

The federal government, under both Democrats and Republicans, has followed a very different course. We now have more than $21 trillion in national debt. The interest paid last year by American taxpayers on that debt was nearly $300 billion. To put our interest payment in perspective, it’s about 20 times as much as a wall facing Mexico would cost, and approximately 40 percent of our total military budget. Credible forecasts estimate that we will be paying $700 billion in interest in just a few years.

It gets worse. Added to our huge interest burden is the growing cost of honoring commitments made to aging baby boomers through Medicare and Social Security. If you thought the payroll taxes they, and you, pay towards entitlement programs were invested for your retirement, you’d be wrong. In fact, the federal politicians divert payroll tax revenues to pay annual government deficits. 

Republicans have been shouting about this as long as I can remember. We called for an amendment to balance the budget. Just a few years ago, the Tea Party movement brought new energy to the issue. But now that Republicans are in charge in Washington, we appear to have become silent about deficits and debt. 

Last year, in round numbers, the government took in $3 trillion and it spent $4 trillion. The extra trillion was borrowed from other countries, institutions, and individuals, and we will pay them billions in interest on their loans every year. The non-partisan forecasts from the Congressional Budget Office predict growing deficits for the next several years, each over one trillion dollars. 

I’m not saying we should immediately cut one trillion dollars from government spending. But I am saying, with a booming economy, full employment, a soaring stock market, and record asset values, we should be shrinking the deficit, not growing it. 

In my next installment, I’ll offer some of the things to do just that. And your suggestions are welcome at

I calculated that the interest I was obligated to pay over the life of my mortgage would dwarf the amount of the original loan. Of course, when it came to buying that first house, I had no choice but to borrow. But the weight of interest and debt taught a lesson I would not forget. Henceforth, credit card balances would be paid on-time and in-full. If we wanted something we could not immediately afford, we would save before we bought it; I figured we could get about twice as much stuff by saving rather than by buying on credit.

When I was elected governor, I arrived with the same philosophy. My first state budget was projected to be over one billion dollars out of balance. Borrowing to fill a budget gap elicits almost no political pain: voters don’t pay much attention to obligations that are passed on to future generations. But the burden of interest and the looming risk of excessive debt led me and our team to pare back spending and update fees to cover the cost of related services. Accordingly, we balanced the budget every year and we reduced the state’s debt balance. When our finances stabilized, we cut taxes and built a one billion dollar rainy day fund.

Utah’s leaders have been particularly wary of spending more than the state takes in. Under Governor Herbert and his predecessors, the budget has been balanced every year and a rainy day fund has grown handsomely.