The topics of debt and default are much on the minds of Georgia's congressmen as the country nears an important Aug. 2 deadline.
Presumably, if Congress does not vote by then to raise the national debt ceiling and authorize the federal government to borrow more money, America will default on its obligations. That development could result in Social Security checks not being mailed, federal installations shutting down, defense contractors not being paid and so on.
Georgia's Republican congressmen, who are part of the House majority that will ultimately decide this issue, maintain that no more debt must be authorized. If that should cause the country to default on its obligations, they say that will not be a problem.
"The country doesn't go off a cliff (if the debt ceiling is not raised) because revenues come in, tax revenue, and we just simply prioritize," said Rep. Phil Gingrey of Cobb County. "We pay the interest on the debt first, we make sure that seniors get their Social Security checks, and we honor Medicare."
Many of the same members of Congress who say they will not approve an increase in the national debt for a Democratic president voted to raise the debt ceiling seven times under George W. Bush.
The debt ceiling was also raised at least 17 times during the administration of Ronald Reagan. The ceiling has been raised under Democratic presidents as well, including three times during the first two years of Barack Obama's administration.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers and the first treasury secretary, once said, "A national debt, if it is not excessive, will be to us a national blessing." He believed that America's ability to raise money by taking on debt obligations — in essence, running up a national debt — would enable it to finance the construction of vital infrastructure like roads, bridges, and canals, as well as pay for the defense of the country.
Hamilton's idea of debt as a way to finance federal activities has been a guiding principle of American governance ever since. Congressmen and presidents from both sides of the partisan aisle have many times approved increases in the national debt ceiling. George W. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, remarked: "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."
Debt is also a necessary part of keeping the American economy in motion.
When I decided to purchase a new car several years ago, I settled upon a model that cost around $23,000 with all the taxes and dealer charges added in. I could not pay cash for the vehicle because I didn't have $23,000 that I could spare at the time. I didn't have the $40,000 or $50,000 in cash that would have been required to purchase a vehicle like an Infiniti or a Lexus, either. I don't know many people who would have had that kind of available money.
Instead, I did what millions of consumers do: I took out a loan (which I've since paid off) to buy the vehicle over a period of several years.
Same thing with the house where I live. When I bought it, I did not have the financial means to pay cash for it. With the exception of Miami drug dealers who carry around briefcases filled with $100 bills, I doubt there are many people who have the ability to pay cash for their domicile. In order to buy a house, millions of Americans take out mortgages, which requires them to pay off long-term debt over a period of 15 or 30 years.
Nearly everybody goes into debt for one reason or another. Many of the congressmen who now insist that we cannot raise the national debt ceiling are people who have charged purchases on credit cards, signed multiyear loans to pay for a car or taken out a 30-year mortgage to buy a house.
Debt can obviously become a serious problem if it gets out of control. We do not want the United States to fall into the same debt-ridden hole that has turned the economies of Greece, Ireland and Portugal into basket cases.
Still, debt is an obligation that most of us take on at some point. Like it or not, it has been an integral part of America's economy for more than two centuries.
Tom Crawford is the editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service that covers government and politics in Georgia. His column appears Wednesdays and on gainesvilletimes.com.