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Does U.S. Debt Ceiling Debate Compromise Citizens' Money Morals?

10/07/2013 01:03 EDT | Updated 12/06/2013 05:12 EST

One would have had to been hiding under a 'no-media rock' to not know that the U.S. government shut down its non-essential services on October 1st. A battle over the budget for the 2013-2014 financial year and an inability for the Republican and Democratic parties to find a compromise was to blame. The story and the political parties' blame game has been everywhere, putting the concept of financial management and budgets front and center on the TVs, tablets, and phones of those not only in the U.S., but around the world. Of greater interest, the budget story has identified the looming October 17th deadline whereby the U.S. will need to raise its 'debt-ceiling' to enable more borrowing and prevent a default on its $16.7-trillion debt.

Why is the fast approaching debt-ceiling crisis of significance, aside from the fact that failure to raise the debt ceiling would mean the U.S. would default on paying its bills? Well, for a Trustee in Bankruptcy, it's significant for the messaging that lies underneath this issue and how the public interprets that message about the ever increasing debt load.

The U.S. debt was $1-trillion in 1982, and at $12.1-trillion just four years ago. It's now at $16.7-trillion and needing to be raised on Oct. 17th, or the country will be unable to pay its bills and will default on debt payments. This doesn't seem to overly concern the lawmakers, who seem to be more focused on the political benefits they can extract from each other before (inevitably) agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. Both political parties, after all, have held office when this debt ceiling has been repeatedly increased by $15.7-trillion over 31 years. There doesn't seem to be concern over this constant debt growth, just concern about the political spin and optics that is communicated in the process.

Politicians, however, will 'do what they do'. The public is where the more deeply rooted concern may lie, at least for a debt help professional. Leaving the politics and the question of 'who's right' out of the current government shutdown and the pending debt ceiling battle, one has to ask how this ongoing debt growth influences the public. When a 'debt ceiling' is created, but then routinely increased each time it is reached, does that message to the public the importance of fiscal restraint? Regardless of the political gamesmanship behind the current shutdown, have we seen a public debate about the actual issues involved in the budget?

Most of what the media has communicated is a public outrage and federal workers rallying to stop the shutdown. Yes, the shutdown is a created event that will damage the economy and peoples' lives. A concern, however, is that there doesn't seem to be a narrative arising that suggests the staged event has given reason for the public to reflect on the astronomical debt the country is facing and what that means to future generations. There doesn't seem to be any public discussion about that, just expressions of concern about ending the shutdown and raising the debt ceiling yet again come October 17th. Business as usual, which, based on the last 31 years, means taking on more debt to pay the bills.

As a debt professional that witnesses people on the edge of their own fiscal cliff daily, the casual nature by which the October 17th debt ceiling crisis is communicated by the politicians and the media is a concern. It seems a case can be made that it detaches the societal consciousness from the very serious debt problems facing not just the U.S., but global economies. It frames a story that is really about spending exceeding revenue into a story about one political party's opinion on where to spend versus their opponent. Shouldn't the real story the media should be exploring and the public should be debating is how long this societal acceptance of skyrocketing debt can be tolerated? Should the real debt ceiling debate be about plans to reverse the trend and start to drive this in the other direction, rather than routinely increasing the limit after political gains are leveraged from the opposing party?

The current government shutdown in the U.S. is costing the economy dearly as every day progresses. As the October 17th debt ceiling deadline approaches, even the risk of a default holds potential for damage to the economy, its markets and the country's credit rating. An actual default would, of course, impose even more striking damage to the country. But, in all of this debate, one may wish to ask what damage is being done to the citizen's and their money morals. In making the notion of an ever increasing debt load an acceptable and somewhat mundane thought, are we instilling complacency about being financially responsible, setting budgets and living within our means?