At 241 years, the United States claims to have the oldest continuously operating national government in the world. Some worry that it’s time will soon run out, probably due to some form of self-destruction.
About 25 years ago, the Antiplanner had an epiphany. In the previous two decades working for environmental groups, I had learned that government was not always the best way to protect the environment. What I realized in 1992 was that two of the biggest, if not the biggest, threats to the environmental resources I cared about were the national debt and deficit spending. Deficit spending allowed people to do harmful things to the environment that they could not afford to do without subsidies. The growth of the national debt appeared to be leading toward a crisis that was likely to put any environmental concerns on the back burner.
Since then, the national debt has quintupled (tripled after adjusting for inflation), growing from 66 percent to 106 percent of GDP. Deficits have grown from $340 billion in 1992 to well over a trillion dollars in the first four years of the Obama administration, falling to about $644 billion this year.
The federal government has effectively bought off my former environmental allies by directing a tiny portion of that deficit spending to supposedly green activities: renewable energy, sustainable transportation, and so forth. In fact, most of these programs are boondoggles that enrich selected corporations and do little good for (and often much harm to) the environment.
Overall, however, I’d say that the national debt is now a greater threat to the environment than deficit spending. We are spending nearly half a trillion dollars a year just in interest on that debt. We spend more on national defense than the next eight countries combined. Social security and medicare trust funds are essentially broke and living off of more deficit spending (the so-called “reserves” are really just promises to pay for past deficit spending out of future tax revenues).
This can’t go on forever, and if the United States self-destructs, it will be in an orgy of debt and deficit spending. While special interest groups today seek to get as large a share of that deficit spending as possible, those who look to the long term, as environmentalists claim to do, should do their best to insulate the things they care about from the inevitable results of a debt crisis.
This, as much as any other reason, is why the Antiplanner looks to user fees as the solution to most land-use and transportation problems. User fees will protect public lands from fire sales; user fees will maintain transportation infrastructure; user fees will help private developers determine what kind of housing and other developments the public really wants.
Independence Day should mean more than the end of this nation’s being a part of the British empire. It should also mean the end of our own personal dependence on subsidies and deficit spending. That is the goal towards which the Antiplanner continues to work.
Have a happy and save Independence Day.