Steve Hochstadt: Who is the Spendthrift?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Steve Hochstadt of Jacksonville is a professor of history at Illinois College. His column appears every Tuesday in the Journal-Courier and is available and on his blog at]

Here is our national debt: $13,000,000,000,000.

That’s way too many zeros for us to really understand such a number’s significance. It doesn’t help to write $13 trillion, either, because we are just getting comfortable with the concept of a billion. I still find it hard to imagine a life in which someone owns a billion dollars, so I can’t yet grasp a trillion.

To get that deep into debt, our government has been spending like a drunken sailor for years: Buying everything in sight without thinking about the future. Every year government payouts far exceed income, and the yearly deficit keeps growing. Conservatives are outraged by Washington’s profligate use of taxpayers’ money. Those spendthrifts in Washington need to take a lesson from the American family, who knows that you can’t spend what you don’t have.

At least that’s what we have been hearing, louder and louder, with more and more anger. But it isn’t true....

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