Miraculous Mr. Shakespeare is at his subtle best, methinks, when he has Polonius, the old blowhard, pour out the sum of his wisdom to Laertes, his departing son, in “Hamlet.” The speech captures one of the essential facts of a father’s life: that the distillate of one’s life experiences makes rather weak tea when we try to put it into words. We can picture the son’s eyes darting impatiently toward his waiting ship as his father prattles on about friendship, money management, proper attire and so on, until he finally finishes, 26 lines later, with the famous flourish: “To thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
T.S. Eliot, writing at roughly the age of young Laertes, described this urgent yet somehow vapid dad as “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse.” Twenty years into fatherhood, I find Polonius to be a very relatable character.
Which brings me to another well-known line of Polonian advice: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” It is a maxim I try to live by—even though I know it’s fundamentally very wrong. Polonius offers a simple rule for a very complicated subject. Debt, the ruin of millions and cause of great misery, is also the engine of growth, prosperity and progress.
America wouldn’t be a nation of homeowners were it not for mortgage lenders. We wouldn’t be a land of highways, airports and indoor plumbing were it not for government bonds. We wouldn’t be an engine of small business innovation were it not for fractional- reserve banking, nor would our colleges and universities be the envy of the world were it not for student loans.
But give the old man his due: America doesn’t need any encouragement to borrow. If anything, we have become too much in love with debt. Consider a few data points.
The Congressional Budget Office updated its 10-year forecast thislast week. Despite a sunny outlook for economic growth, the nonpartisan analysts predicted the swift return of trillion-dollar annual deficits. These relentless waves of red ink will push total federal indebtedness to nearly 100 percent of our gross domestic product by 2028—the highest level since World War II.
If anything, the CBO forecast paints a rosy picture because even lip service in support of fiscal discipline has disappeared across the political spectrum. With the self-proclaimed “king of debt” in the White House and free-spending liberalism ascendant in the opposition party, Washington is throwing money around like—well, I’d say a drunken sailor, but it wouldn’t be fair to drunks or sailors.
After denouncing stimulus spending in the depths of a near-depression, Republicans have injected trillions of new stimulus at a time of full employment. They turned needed tax reform into a budget-busting spree and followed up with a spending bill that glided through Congress on a river of fat.
But the federal debt is just the beginning. Consumer debt (mainly credit cards, auto loans and student loans) is at the highest level in history, nearly $3.9 trillion. Household debt, which adds mortgages to the total, is also a record: more than $13 trillion.
And, to borrow from Ron Popeil, there’s more. The Pew Charitable Trusts is out with its latest update on the ticking time bomb of state pension funding. This is its own brand of debt because millions of people have been promised future payments, promises state governments will either keep or break.
The projected shortfall rose again in 2016, to $1.4 trillion among the 50 states, thanks to the usual suspects: too little money put into pension funds, unrealistically high projected returns, growing numbers of retirees.
A number of cities are facing their own pension problems. Meanwhile, rising interest rates are making borrowing more expensive. With government and household debt growing more quickly than the underlying economy, debt service will consume steadily larger slices of our personal and communal pies.
I understand that a boom in auto loans means money in the pockets of workers and shareholders all along the supply chain. That well-used credit cards keep the restaurant, travel and retail sectors humming. That a student loan can boost a person up the salary ladder. That finance itself is one of the world’s most important economic drivers. In short, that borrowed money makes the modern world go around.
Still, the whole thing makes me nervous. Not to be a Polonius.
Paul Ryan’s, R-Wis., decision to retire as speaker of the House is a milestone along the spending freeway. He wasn’t a very effective fiscal disciplinarian, but at least he promoted the concept. With him gone, we’ll have one less droning grown-up detaining us from our unknown future on the sea of debt.