What if you had to pay your portion of the national debt? Would you begin to wonder what you are getting for your money? Would you demand some real changes in how the federal government is run? It's worth thinking about!
On the heels of our recent election and the impending fiscal cliff my thoughts turn towards ideas to generate change and reform in what is nearly universally regarded as our broken system.Most of the barriers to change lie in the apathy and lack of knowledge that many citizens have about the current state of our fiscal health and how it relates to them. Samuel Johnson once said that "nothing so focuses the mind as the prospect of being hanged." I think I have an idea that might focus the attention of every citizen in this country!
According to the U.S. National Debt Clock (http://www.usdebtclock.org/) each citizen's responsibility for our 16 trillion dollar debt works out to $186, 822. So, imagine that a law is passed that requires every citizen to pay off in full their portion of the national debt before they retire. They can choose to set up a payment plan themselves or have automatic deductions taken from their paycheck. Either way, they will be facing a direct bill each month to contribute to retiring the debt.
The law should make it clear that this is not a new tax. Each citizen in some small way (or 186,822 ways) contributed to this problem we now face and now the time has come to collect the debt. For some citizens (the much-maligned 2%) they will be able to retire their portion of the debt rather quickly. They may also elect to retire other citizen's debts if they choose. However, the new law should also make clear that in the interest of true fairness the debt should be apportioned equally among all citizens as we are all, in some way, responsible for the debt.
I suspect some of the immediate reactions to this new law would would be as follows.
1. Intense anger at being presented a bill for such a large amount of money.
2. Disbelief that we are all responsible in some way for the debt.
3. Intense lobbying by various groups to have the amount for their individuals lowered and the amount for others raised.
But, once these initial reactions wear out perhaps another reaction will be to examine, closely and honestly, the situation we are in and recognize that spending money we didn't (and don't have) is what got us into the problem we now face. Beginning to pay back the money we borrowed to have these things is what will have to be done at some point.
Perhaps this new law will also force people to recognize that the world is filled with trade-offs. We need to begin to decide whether the things we now regard as necessities are really necessary. If I really want something and can afford to buy it it's fine to say "I need it." On the other hand, if I really want something and cannot afford it, it's wise to recognize that while I may really want it, I may not really "need" it.
As the economist Frederich Bastiat once said "government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." But, now it's time to start paying our own way.
Mind you, this is merely a thought experiment. I think that the abstraction of national debt is sometimes difficult to grasp. Making it personal might motivate demands for real reform like we've never seen!