Wednesday, May 17, 2023
It's Wednesday, May 17th, 2023.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Argument Over Debt Ceiling: President Biden Has No Choice But to Deal With Congress
So much controversy these days and conversation in the media has to do with whether or not Congress and the President will agree to raise the national debt limit. This comes up recurringly in American politics and it is always a divisive issue. It's also confusing to the American people, so let's just try to peel back the layers of the onion for just a moment and understand what we're talking about.
First of all, we're talking about the fact that the national government has a huge debt. Now, how large might that debt be? Most people would say it's in the billions of dollars. Actually, that's quite an understatement. The current national debt is somewhere around $31 trillion. That's $31 trillion just divided by the number of men, women, and children in the United States.
It's $94,174 for every single American. $94,174. Now, you can pretty much do the math and understand that that debt is not going to be paid on these terms. That is impractical. The nation has been spending money it doesn't have. The nation has been funding massive social programs. In the main, they're the problem here and you're looking at vast amounts of expenditure.
You also have a great worldview political crisis on the division between the left and the right in this country. The argument on the left politically and economically often referred to as Keynesianism, it makes the argument that national borrowing is in general a good thing that nations can borrow their way out of economic problems, and eventually the idea comes down to the fact that the people who are now politicians and the people who are now receiving these benefits, they will never be alive when the bills come due, but the bills are piling up and the problem is that that particular mentality from the left has been around for a long time and we're seeing the consequences of it.
But just understand as we're saying on the left right now, the argument is the debt limit is no problem. The national debt is no problem. The fact that we are transferring these costs to successive generations, no problem. They'll find a way to deal with it probably by borrowing even more money. The argument on the right is that borrowing is always suspect, and when you are borrowing for current costs, you are in a very dangerous economic situation.
That is to say the conservative argument would be, it's one thing if you're borrowing say to buy a house. It's another thing if you're borrowing in order to eat. The difference, and conservatives have been arguing this for decades even longer than that, the difference is that if you are borrowing money to buy a house, you are actually securing an investment.
Eventually, the house ought to be worth more than you have borrowed in the first place. It's a net gain. But if you are borrowing in order to pay today's expenditures then you're in big trouble because you're digging a hole and the hole can only get deeper. The more you spend, the more you borrow, the deeper the hole gets, the more impractical it becomes that you'll ever get out of that hole.
The conservative argument against debt, including even specifically this national debt question is an argument against borrowing at the expense of our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. We are basically downloading costs to them that are not only costs that we can't pay, they're costs that almost by any stretch of the imagination, future generations will not be able to pay.
But of course, the argument for that kind of spending is by that time, those who are enjoying the benefits now will be long dead. Now at face value, it's very easy for Christians to say that's an immoral argument, and of course it is, but the point is, this is the argument that the nation has been following for a number of decades now, especially ever since about the midpoint of the 20th century. But the problem didn't even emerge then, the problem emerged earlier because the temptation for a government to borrow for current spending, it is a nearly overwhelming temptation.
You understand how the logic works. If you're in Congress right now, you have people who want social services right now. You want people who want all kinds of different economic benefits. Right now, the very easy thing to do is to tell them they can have those benefits right now. In order to get there, you can't depend upon current revenue. Almost by definition that's impossible because the nation doesn't just stack up reserves, it basically spends not only every dollar it gets, it spends more than every dollar it gets, sometimes much more than every dollar it gets.
The political quandary in the big picture is this, you have citizens who want the spending, but they resist the taxation that will lead to that spending. But of course, conservatives will step up and say it's not just a matter of taxation because the taxation only matters if you have a healthy economy and if there is a rightful kind of investment and economic reward system that enables net economic growth, high rates of taxation are the enemy of net economic growth.
This was the very clear lesson of the stagflation that affected so many Western economies in the late '60s and especially in the 1970s. But congress as it's now constituted, is not generally made up of people who were in Congress during the 1970s. That is very ancient history in political terms, especially when every congressional election comes up in the house in a two-year cycle, and the Senate in a six-year cycle. And when you have successive presidential administrations where even the conservatives are only really arguing for cutting the net rate of expansion of federal funding.
This is where you also have to talk about the so-called third rail in American politics, which is the social entitlement spending. And this just points to the fact that the left wants an ever expansive welfare state. There are those who don't like the term welfare state, but that's exactly what it is.
It is a state that begins to fund public welfare to such an extent that the state generally takes on the functions that had previously been distributed to other sectors in the society, most importantly to the family. But you also need to notice there's a very pernicious circle here because you then weaken the family and you increase the need for social spending, and the more you socially spend, the more the family is net weakened, the more you redefine the family in order to qualify people for these social programs, the more you disincentivize the very moral recovery in terms of the recovery of marriage and family work and all the rest that might make the success of those programs eventually successful.
The left then points fingers to the right and says, "Well, all you really care about is cutting taxes." But cutting taxes is not just a pragmatic issue, it's also a principal issue, which is to say that so many on the left begin with the assumption that all the wealth in the country in some sense belongs to the country as just an individual accounts.
Conservatives understand that the wealth actually belongs to individuals, and thus when you have the government come along with confiscatory taxation, which means you don't volunteer to pay your income taxes, the federal government rather clearly insists upon it. The left counts on the fact that the public will allow all kinds of rates of taxation, and by the way, encroaching government power and ever expanding and newly creative forms of taxation. The left counts on the fact that the American public will put up with that.
Conservatives count on the fact that there are limits to what the public will accept, but that's a political bargain and it leads to continual political compromise. It also leads to both parties to some degree being complicit in being dishonest with the American people. Many people who call themselves conservative want you to think they're more conservative than they are, and many people who are liberal want you to think that they are less liberal than they are.
On both sides, the bottom line issue is just how fast the nation's spending is going to grow and hand in hand with that is the question of how fast the national debt will grow. So you say, that's really interesting, but how exactly does this play into today's controversy? Well, it comes down to this, government according to the constitution, holds the power of the purse.
The executive can't spend money without congressional authorization. The President of the United States requires Congress to provide the money. All this requires a lot of complicity, and a part of that complicity has to be the mainstream media because one of the statements made over and over and over again is that there's a basic constitutional escape hatch here, and that goes back to the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution in Section 4 where the text says, "The validity of the public debt of the United States authorized by law shall not be questioned."
So people are claiming to that particular statement in Section 4 of the 14th Amendment means that all the controversy and the so-called battle between a conservative leadership in the Republican House over against the President and the Democratic Senate, all that's basically nothing more than unnecessary politics.
In other words, they are arguing that Congress has no power whatsoever to put limits upon how much the federal government may borrow. At this point, it is important just to state for the record that a default of the government of the United States when it comes to the national debt would be an economic disaster.
Now, it might be a disaster that's exaggerated in some cases. We don't know because it's never happened before, but here's where conservatives should be very alert to the fact this is a very real problem. Debt is not something that is just say, written on a pyramid somewhere. Debt is in a context of borrowing, especially in international markets where the size and strength and assurance of the federal government means that the United States government has been able to borrow at preferred rates.
If loaning vast sums of money to the United States government appears to be more risky, the interest rates will go up. Now, that's true in terms of a credit card. It's true in terms of a mortgage or corporate borrowing. The fact is that changing from one interest rate to a higher interest rate might be not only painful but absolutely catastrophic. The effects would ricochet throughout the entire economy and they would affect not only the nation's budget, they would affect your household budget. They would affect your retirement accounts. They would affect entitlement spending by the federal government.
In other words, this really should have your attention. Here's the problem. Let's go back to that language in the 14th Amendment Section 4, which states, "The validity the public debt of the United States authorized by law shall not be questioned." Well, here's the issue. Even if the federal government were to default, even if there were to be some interruption in payments of the federal debt for any reason, that would not mean that the debt is invalidated.
If in any given month you don't pay a car payment or a mortgage payment, that becomes a problem, but it does not invalidate the debt. Just because you didn't pay it, doesn't mean that the debt goes away. So looking at the argument that the 14th Amendment section four gives the President an escape hatch here, that's just sheer fiction. That's just not true. It's also just vitally important to understand that our constitutional system of the separation of powers is based upon the very common sense and Genesis 3, sinful world recognition that you can't concentrate too much power in one person or in one branch of government.
So which branch of government gets to establish the national debt, the level of national borrowing, it is not the executive branch, it is not the President. Article 1 of the US Constitution dealing with the powers and responsibilities of the Congress in Section 8 simply says this, Congress shall have the power, many words then follow including these "to borrow money on the credit of the United States." So that's a power that is delegated to Congress. It is not given to the president.
The President thus finds himself in a bind, but you would know that listening to President Biden who says he's not going to deal with Congress on this issue. Does he understand that he has no choice but to deal with Congress on this issue? He has no constitutional authority to solve this problem on his own. His options are zero other than to deal with Congress. He doesn't want to have to deal with Congress that means a House of Representatives under admittedly rather narrow Republican control.
But that Republican control is a big problem for President Biden in this situation. One of the most influential scholars of the US Constitution is Judge Michael W. McConnell. He's now a professor and the director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University. He was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th circuit. He was considered on just about every Republican president's shortlist for nomination to the Supreme Court. Michael McConnell points to some of the pragmatic problems with the president claiming he can just solve unilaterally the nation's debt problem going around Congress.
As McConnell writes, "Were Mr. Biden to issue bonds on his unilateral authority, the bond market would know that those bonds were not backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. Sensible investors," he writes, "would not purchase such bonds or would demand such a high risk premium as to make them uneconomical." That is the pragmatic issue and that's found in his column recently in the New York Times.
So even more importantly, Judge McConnell concludes with this argument, "Mr. Biden has only one real choice if he wishes to avoid default. He has to negotiate with Congress. The branch of the government with authority over borrowing and spending." He goes on to say, "If that means agreeing to a spending reduction, that's hardly a disaster. That is what previous presidents have done. Indeed as vice president, he negotiated just such a deal between President Barack Obama and Congress." He concludes finally, "The idea that the 14th Amendment gives the President unilateral power to borrow is dangerous nonsense."
The President of the United States keeps telling the American people and shouting to Congress that Congress is going to have to settle on his terms and those terms are the President says absolutely no negotiation.
But the fact is that the President of the United States is simply issuing political bluster with those words because this is a problem he cannot handle on his own. The U.S. Constitution has seen to that.
The Pill Becomes Available Over the Counter? The FDA Appears to Allow Over-the-Counter Sales of Birth Control Pill
But next we're going to shift to a very different issue. It too relates to the federal government and to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration, more commonly known as the FDA has just released the fact that an advisory panel has voted unanimously that it should make a specific form of the birth control pill available over the counter without a prescription, and that includes that availability over the counter to American adolescents.
Christine Fernando reporting for USA Today puts it this way, an FDA advisory panel unanimously recommended the agency allow a birth control pill to be available over the counter in the US for the first time. There was a two-day public meeting. "The advisor's decision is not binding, but the 17-0 vote paves the way for the likely approval of the pills over the counter availability. The FDA says USA today is expected to make a final decision this summer."
Well, the political background to this is clear. The political left has been pushing for this availability of a birth control pill over the counter, not just for months or years, but for decades. Now, this particular pill, which is known as a progesterone-only pill, it's right now just one pill, and of course it may be known eventually under different names, but the argument is that women and girls ought to have the availability of this birth control pill over the counter.
The argument is also that the benefits of the drug vastly outweigh the risks of the drug. Now, there is no drug that comes without risk and this particular drug is itself, of course, not without risk. When you consider what it means to interrupt a woman's natural reproductive cycle, you're talking about something that of course comes with medical significance.
Advocates of the move that is of making the pill available over the counter argue that not only do the benefits outweigh the risk, but that people who would obtain and use this particular pill should be counted upon to follow the labeling directions carefully and correctly. Now, I'm just going to step back for a moment and say that that's a statement that I think no one should take at face value.
Just consider what you do when you pick up an over-the-counter medicine, you'll notice that many of them have paper stuffed inside the box in order that you would have all these statements and all these declamations and all of these details and warnings. Let me just ask you honestly, the last time you opened a new package of over-the-counter medicine, did you read every word of all the packaging with all the warnings? Did you understand them? Did you take the drug absolutely correctly? Were you 14?
It's interesting the way the USA Today report dealt with these concerns. "Their main concerns included people, especially young teenagers, would be able to correctly follow the labeling instructions, and if people may not realize when Opill," that's the name of the pill isn't appropriate for them without counseling from a doctor." For example, people with a history of breast cancer should not take the pill and those with abnormal bleeding should talk to the doctor first. But some participants in these categories incorrectly said Opill would be appropriate for them in preliminary research, "The panel largely set aside initial concerns when given the opportunity to ask questions about Perrigo that is the drug manufacturer's research."
That's just an indication of the rush here in order to make this birth control pill available over the counter without a prescription to just about anyone including teenagers. Yes, there are risks. The risks are well documented. And by the way, just to avoid litigation or at least to provide a defense against litigation, most of these pills, most of these medications in general terms have absolutely elaborate statements of what might happen if you take this pill or you take this drug incorrectly.
We Need to ‘Protect People Against Pregnancy’?: The Moral Revolution Summarized in Just a Sentence
But before we're leaving this issue, we need to understand that the pressure here is not just on the FDA about this one pill. It is not just about how this one pill would affect the nation morally as well as pharmaceutically, it has to do with the larger context of the sexual revolution, which we need to understand was only made medically possible by the development of the oral contraceptive commonly noticed the pill. If there were no pill, there would be no sexual revolution on these terms.
But just about the time the nation's morality was about to change, the pill came and the pill was developed by the way in its own moral context, and we've discussed this thoroughly on The Briefing before, it was persons operating on the basis of one or two moral agendas who were largely behind the political impetus and the economic funding for the research that produced the oral contraceptive. Group number one was those who made the argument about population control.
Too many the wrong kind of babies being born. And you need to limit the world's population. Babies are the problem. We have too many babies. That's where we need to understand that the real problem projected into the future is not that there are too many babies, but too few. The second argument was the one that received the greatest attention in the United States and that is that if women were going to be equal with men, they must be equally able to be unpregnant at any given moment. And that was one of the arguments made in court, for example, of the Roe v. Wade decision about abortion. It was one of the arguments made for the necessity of the pill.
The argument made by the sexual revolutionaries is that the pill would change everything, and at least in one sense, when it came to the likelihood of pregnancy, the pill did change everything. If you want to know how this worldview is distilled down into just a few words, an article by Sarah Toy that was published in the New York Times makes that clear. Quoting Kristyn Brandi, an obstetrician-gynecologist and Darney-Landy fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this particular doctor said, "More people are considering trying to protect themselves against pregnancy."
Just think about that for a moment. I just want to go back to her words, more people are considering trying to protect themselves against pregnancy. That's not new language, it's just presented there in particularly stark form, protection against pregnancy.
Now, let's just state that throughout most of human history, that would've been just about impossible to understand. Let's also understand that throughout most of human history, that would've been impossible to achieve. The pill did change that equation. And those who sought to bring it about did so intentionally. The separation of sex and reproduction was one of the main goals of the sexual revolutionaries, but you'll notice here that pregnancy itself is described as a threat, "More people are considering trying to protect themselves against pregnancy."
This just really reveals the worldview, and even though there are so many other issues, urgent moral issues related to the pill and to the FDA's potential change in policy here, the bigger issue is just understanding what the contraceptive revolution is symbolized by the pill basically comes down to. It comes down to the attempt on the part of many simply to avoid a baby being a byproduct of sexual union.
Just to state the obvious, the pill basically facilitated adultery, sex outside a marriage. You just go down the list. The pill became one of the most powerful technologies ever unleashed in human society. By this time, that's abundantly clear. But it also brought about a vast moral transformation at the same time. And I'm not just talking about sexual morality. There's so much loaded in this sentence. Virtually, every word of this sentence turns out to be important. I quote the doctor again, "More people are considering." More people, is that just what we refer to here? Just people?
It's conceivable that both men and women in this equation have this concern, but you notice that we're alert these days to when people is all of a sudden inserted where otherwise the word would be women. "More people are considering trying to protect themselves." Well, protect themselves against what? While the doctor goes on, "to protect themselves against pregnancy."
Sometimes the moral crisis of our age comes down to just a few words, just one concise sentence. That is certainly the truth in this case. And the most chilling aspect of all is the fact that this is presented in the media as if it's supposed to make absolutely perfect sense.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.