Port: The national debt math we all want to ignore

Republicans like to promise that we can cut taxes without cutting spending. Democrats like to promise that we can increase spending and pay for it only with (fictional) tax increases for the rich. These people are selling you snake oil.

The Capitol building
The Capitol building in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

MINOT, N.D. — In Washington, D.C., there is yet another fight over raising the debt ceiling.

If the federal government isn't authorized by Congress to accumulate more debt — we're currently at over $28.4 trillion, according to the Treasury Department , or an alarming $8 trillion more than the same date during Donald Trump's first year in office — the government will have to shut down.

And so the politicians debate raising the debt ceiling . Democrats want it to go up to clear room for their obnoxiously alliterated, multi-trillion-dollar Build Back Better Act.

Republicans, on the other hand, after sitting on their hands while the national debt exploded under Trump's leadership, have decided to play at being rigorous fiscal conservatives again.

It's a pathetic bit of theater that ignores the real question looming over policy morass: Why do we refuse to pay for the government we vote for? Or cut government down to something we're willing to pay for?


Democrats, who have become the party of the rich , would have us believe that the problem is insufficient taxes on the rich. Except, because they are the party of the rich, they don't really mean that. Even as our liberal friends propose significant new taxes on the rich in the Build Back Better Act, they are simultaneously proposing an end to State and Local Tax (SALT) deductions passed under the Trump administration, something that would offset any revenue gains from the tax increases .

Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York at the Capitol on Jan. 22, 2018. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.

Democrats have found a way to tax the rich without actually, you know, taxing the rich.

Though that entire premise — that we can end our nation's fiscal woes by taxing rich people — doesn't square with reality. We already tax the hell out of the rich in America. "According to IRS data, the top 1 percent of taxpayers (which includes households making $540,000 a year or more) take home about 21 percent of all income and pay about 40 percent of federal income taxes," Kevin Williamson notes .

This means the 1 percent's tax burden is about double their share of income.

"The top 10 percent earns about 48 percent of all income and pays about 71 percent of federal income taxes," Williamson continues. "The top half of earners make about 88 percent of the income and pay virtually all of the income taxes — more than 97 percent."

The idea that "the rich" aren't paying their fair share is a fiction made up by Democrats who want to tax the rich except not really.


But Democrats are only half the problem.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is shown in the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 13, 2018. Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Republicans pretend we can cut taxes without balancing the budget through spending cuts, a bit of fiction every bit as stupid and self-serving and divorced from reality as Democrats blaming everything on Jeff Bezos not paying his fair share.

The Ronald Reagan tax cuts didn't pay for themselves through economic growth. Federal revenues declined about 9% in the years after they were implemented. The Trump tax cuts didn't pay for themselves either. Our nation saw a significant amount of economic growth after those cuts were implemented, but federal revenues still declined.

Republicans like to promise that we can cut taxes without cutting spending.

Democrats like to promise that we can increase spending and pay for it only with (fictional) tax increases for the rich.

These people are selling you snake oil.


We shouldn't be debating the debt limit. We should be debating the tax increases or the spending cuts, or some combination of the two, that are necessary to stop accumulating debt.

Except, let's face it, that's not really what a majority of the public wants.

They're more interested in the financial fairy tales the Republicans and the Democrats are spinning. The ones where we can get what we want without really having to pay for it.

Blame politicians for the debt crisis if you want, but all they're really doing is serving the will of the people.

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Rob Port, founder of, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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