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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Aid to Egypt vs. Paying Down Debt

The debt of the U.S. Government—some $16 trillion in 2012—can be difficult even to grasp conceptually. One does not run into a trillion of anything in daily life, much less sixteen times a trillion. Without any tangible examples that can give us some inkling of the magnitude of the number, “sixteen trillion” can easily become a number one rattles off as if a “oh, by the way,” as in, “Oh, by the way, that sort of number will never be paid off.” One can point to the debt as a symptom of a systemic imbalance, as in that of consolidation over the constitutional federalism. That is to say, the magnitude of the debt can point to the lack of limitations facing Congress in its appropriating capacity. It could be argued that the ballot box is such a limitation, but what if the electorate themselves have a similar imbalance in terms of spending what they don’t have. With student loan debt at $1 trillion as of 2012 and a third of the amount in default, the federal debt can easily be seen as a manifestation of a more basic or fundamental imbalance of the psyche that transcends yet subtly fuels policy.

In reading of the Obama administration’s preparation of a pact to cut $1 billion from what Egypt owes the U.S. Government for agricultural purchases, I was stunned to read that “money that would otherwise pay down the American debt” would instead be spent on “training and infrastructure projects in Egypt intended to attract private investment and create jobs.” To be sure, rising unemployment in Egypt could undermine the democratically-elected Morsi government, so a strategic argument could be made on behalf of the American aid. However, the almost cavalier attitude toward paying down the federal debt is rather strange, and misplaced, given the gravity of the problem. Put another way, to put a strategic objective primarily oriented to the unemployment of a state that is not in the U.S. above paying down U.S. debt can be viewed as a questionable priority. It seems to indicate a desire to fix another’s problems at the expense of making a dent in one’s own. The scenario of the homeowner who lets his own grass grow out of control yet lends his mower to his neighbor whose lawn is has become “unbecoming” captures this sort of mentality.
In short, the debt of $16 trillion can be read as a mirror of sorts of a certain mentality—one that falls far short of that which a virtuous and responsible citizenry would have. It is no accident that Jefferson and Adams agreed in their later correspondence that such a citizenry is necessary for a republic to remain viable.

Steven Myers, “U.S. Is Near Pact to Cut $1 Billion from Egypt Debt,” The New York Times, September 4, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/04/world/middleeast/us-prepares-economic-aid-to-bolster-democracy-in-egypt.html?pagewanted=all