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In our opinion: Republican Mark Sanford’s quest to get the country talking about debt

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Presidential candidate Mark Sanford talks with the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards at the Triad Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 21, 2019.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Here are some questions we wish moderators would ask during the next Democratic presidential debate:

  •  Interest rates are near zero and the annual budget deficit is more than $1 trillion. When the next recession hits, what tools would you use to fight it?
  • The national debt is rapidly approaching $23 trillion, which is more than 100% of annual GDP. At what point does this debt become unsustainable, and what would you do about it?
  • How much would your proposed programs cost? Would you find ways to fund these or simply add their costs to the national debt? 

And while Democrats are chewing on those, we would like President Trump to account for how he has neglected his 2016 promise to eliminate the national debt over eight years. The debt has instead grown considerably during his first term.

No one can reasonably dispute that these are good times. When the larder is full of food, no one wants to talk about how to prepare for the next famine. But the signs are there for anyone to see. 

The federal government is spending irresponsibly. It is increasing deficits and the Federal Reserve is lowering interest rates during a time of plenty, which goes against conventional wisdom. Good times won’t last forever, and when the bad times come, politicians will have few tools with which to deal with the suffering that results.

Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford knows he has no chance of unseating Donald Trump for the Republican nomination, and yet he is running. His candidacy exists mainly to kickstart a national dialogue on this subject. 

A long shot’s long shot candidate, as he himself described his effort, may not be the best carrier for such a message, but it is a message that is desperately needed heading into the 2020 election.

Sanford met with the Deseret News/KSL editorial board Monday as part of a nationwide 11-state tour. He told us few people seem to be listening.

“You get one, two or three cameras at each stop,” he said. “You get the local news and we get a story, and it’s a game of inches. What happens is the national media quickly bores of a given topic.”

Few things are guaranteed in politics, but you can count on this one. When the roaring economy falters and a recession starts, the topic suddenly will be front and center on all minds.

When the roaring economy falters and a recession starts, the topic suddenly will be front and center on all minds.

“Everybody’s going to be like bees on honey,” Sanford said.

“People are being lulled into a sense of complacency based on the fact that leaders aren’t talking about it. They’re doing an incredible disservice to folks who are going to get hammered.”

Americans of a certain age can remember an older generation whose spending habits were forever changed by the Great Depression. The lessons of more than a decade of high unemployment and severe want were powerful and lasting.

The Great Recession of 2008 was supposed to impart similar lessons, and perhaps it did for people who lost homes and jobs. But collectively, the nation seemed to rebound from a crisis caused by excessive debt into a recovery that was fueled by more debt. Household debt, whether for credit cards, student loans or auto purchases, also continues to rise.

The nation would be far better off if it confronted this challenge today, during good times. A significant move toward federal fiscal responsibility might even stimulate the economy to keep rolling a while longer.

If Sanford or anyone else can get today’s candidates to at least talk about the subject, that would be a positive step.