The Common Good

Counting the Cost of Good and Bad Debt

While watching President Obama's press conference Tuesday evening, I was struck by a few things that are often forgotten in the criticism of his proposed budget.

Count the Cost

It is commonly accepted by biblical scholars that upon being warned about a plot by Herod Antipas to kill him, Jesus called Herod "that fox" (Luke 13:32). Biblical scholars such as John Ortberg also believe that Jesus was referring to Herod in chapter 14:28-32, with references to an embarrassing military overreach in which Herod failed to count the cost before going to war.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, "This fellow began to build and was not able to finish." Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

Jesus didn't hesitate to publicly call out a king who failed to count the cost of a war, even when that king was out to kill him. Throughout the Bush presidency, we saw exactly this failure to count the cost of war. When President Clinton left office, our nation was benefiting from a $127 billion budget surplus. With the books now closed on the Bush years, the Obama administration has inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit. This deficit was accrued by a reckless pursuit of conservative ideology with tax cuts for the rich, while hiding the true cost of a war by deliberately leaving war spending out of the budget, and financing the venture through emergency supplemental bills. Government spending skyrocketed, while responsibility for paying off the debt passed on to our children.

And paying for war does not end when the conflict is over. Whether or not we agreed with the war doesn't relieve us of our moral obligation to take care of those who fought it. Service providers have been reporting a new generation of homeless veterans living on our streets for several years now, and their physical and mental injuries will leave some vets unable to assume full employment for the rest of their lives.

Good Debt and Bad Debt

This is a difference that we all have had to work through. It is the difference between going into debt for something that will bear greater returns in the long run, or going into debt for things that will only depreciate in value. Another way of saying it is knowing the difference between wants and needs. We encourage our children to go to college even though they will have to take on some debt to do so, because the benefits of a college education far outweigh the amount of debt accrued. (Although college costs have now increased so significantly that some students are now finding out that even college debt can be bad debt.) We don't encourage our children to put $1,000 on a credit card, with an interest rate of 30%, to buy an entertainment system they don't need. Why? Because the entertainment system brings a moment of pleasure but does not add any long-term value to the child's life.

When we look at the president's budget, we have to ask ourselves whether the deficits it will incur are good debt, or bad debt. Are the things being paid for a want or a need? While Bobby Jindal publicly mocked spending on volcano monitoring, this week's eruption in Alaska and past eruptions like Mount St. Helens have shown that a small investment now can save far greater sums of money in the long run -- and even save lives.

The president has outlined three areas of spending in his new budget that will help by immediately stimulating demand within our economy and by adding long-term value to the country. The first is education, with the president deciding that it is worth going into debt to increase the quality of and opportunities for education in our country. The second, spending on health care, also adds long-term value to our society. Every year billions of dollars are spent unnecessarily when people put off treatment because they are worried they can't afford it. Third, there are long-term benefits from spending on the environment and infrastructure. Spending on environmental improvements creates jobs that cannot be sent overseas, and will also reduce the high health-care costs associated with various environmental maladies. Debt, of course, must come back down to a sustainable level, but the way to get it there is by investing now in areas that will pay off in the next few years and for generations to come.

So yes, a lot of us are experiencing sticker shock with the new Obama budget. But this sticker shock is like the one of a student looking at their loans -- not a credit card bill racked up at Banana Republic. It is debt that requires discipline, hard work, and focus. But it is the good kind of debt, the kind of debt that can and will produce surpluses in the long run.

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