Tragedy in Statistics

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on October 18, 2013.

Congress and the president have raised the ceiling placed on federal borrowing and federal employees across the country are now back to work. Millions of Americans affected by the partial shut-down of the federal government are deeply relieved. Of course, 90 days from now we'll be in roughly the same position, but our Titanic ship-of-state has avoided an iceberg for the present.

It is hard to be far-sighted. The immediacy and urgency of everyday life makes thinking long-term too abstract for busy, preoccupied people. As in the days of Noah, we are marrying and being given in marriage, buying and selling, and so forth (Matthew 24:37-38). The conventional activities of life, be they arriving to work on time, attending a child's sports event, or paying family bills: our lives are consumed by the constancy of the mundane.

Meanwhile, our national economic future looks bleak.

Our current national debt is roughly $17 trillion; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that this will increase to $24 trillion by 2021. By that same year, the total national debt will equal nearly 80 percent of our gross domestic product.

Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other "entitlement" programs now consume about 60 percent of the federal budget, and are lurching inexorably toward fiscal collapse as (a) people live longer and longer, (b) there are fewer workers to support these programs, and (c) money intended for the Social Security "trust fund" is syphoned off to mask the true size of the federal deficit.

According to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Medicare recipients will grow from about 47 million now to 88 million by 2040. During that same period, if we assume a 4.7 percent increase in costs annually, the cost per person of the program will rise from about $12,000 currently to more than $44,000 in 2040.

The 2010 report of the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform offers an arresting summary of our nation's fiscal future: "Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Spending is rising and revenues are falling short, requiring the government to borrow huge sums each year to make up the difference. We face staggering deficits. In 2010, federal spending was nearly 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the value of all goods and services produced in the economy. Only during World War II was federal spending a larger part of the economy. Tax revenues stood at 15 percent of GDP this year, the lowest level since 1950. The gap between spending and revenue - the budget deficit - was just under nine percent of GDP. Over the long run, as the baby boomers retire and health care costs continue to grow, the situation will become far worse. By 2025 revenue will be able to finance only interest payments, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Every other federal government activity - from national defense and homeland security to transportation and energy - will have to be paid for with borrowed money. Debt held by the public will outstrip the entire American economy, growing to as much as 185 percent of GDP by 2035. Interest on the debt could rise to nearly $1 trillion by 2020. These mandatory payments - which buy absolutely no goods or services - will squeeze out funding for all other priorities. Federal debt this high is unsustainable."

All of those statistics and numbers make the eyes glaze. They are, to most of us, mathematical abstractions irrelevant to the way we live.

But unless we make some hard choices, the way we live will, in the next several decades, dramatically change. We need more babies and more workers. We need stronger families in which a mom and a dad teach their children to worship God and remain faithful to one another. We need a renewed capacity for self-restraint and a constitutional vision of what the federal government should and should not do. We need moral renewal in our culture. And we need the redemption in our personal lives that Jesus Christ alone can give (II Corinthians 5:17-21).

Many thoughtful people have offered potential solutions to the fiscal and debt crises outlined above. Go to the Websites of the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the National Taxpayer's Union, and other leading conservative think-tanks to learn about promising alternatives to the economic collapse we are approaching. Urge your elected representatives to take action, now, rather than forestalling hard decisions for another day that, if most of them have their way, will never come.

For now, consider something Joseph Stalin reportedly once said to U.S. Ambassador to the USSR Averill Harriman, "One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic." It's a telling observation: Minds blur when overwhelmed with data, numbers, graphs, etc., but we are moved by stories of personal grief and sorrow. That's normal; we are finite human beings with emotions, not merely brains with bodies.

Just remember that as you consider the kind of information shared in this article, you should repeat silently to yourself, "This means me ... and my children." Until Americans force themselves to confront fiscal reality, we risk becoming the statistics that compose economic tragedy for ourselves and those we love.