Much has been written and said lately about the problem of the national debt, especially after the sovereign debt crisis that has shaken the eurozone in the last few years. So, after thinking about the topic for quite a while (and discussing it with quite a few people of different ideological persuasions), it occurred to me that I could put together a dialogue to provide a somehow different perspective. So, here it is.

The problem with Government debt

— So, I hear you strongly oppose the current policies of the Obama Administration, and consider the US national debt to be perhaps the most important problem we face right now.
— I certainly do.
— What is it that you consider so unacceptable about the debt?
— Well, obviously, the fact that it is unsustainable. It's just not possible to go on forever spending more than you earn. There's got to be a limit. It's just immoral to go on borrowing what you know perfectly well that you won't be able to return. On top of that, it imperils the future of our own kids.
— OK, OK. Let's see if we can clarify a few things and, above all, make sure we discuss all these points one by one. You said that the Government debt is "unsustainable". Why?
— Because it keeps growing and growing. It never stops! It never goes down!
— Well, you have a point there. However, the debt does not have to be like that necessarily, right? I mean, our Government (just like individual citizens) can incur into a debt that is indeed too large and unmanageable (and, therefore, impossible to repay) or, on the other hand, it could conceivably incur into a manageable debt that will be invested and, as a consequence of that investment, will allow us to grow our revenue and, therefore, pay it back. Isn't that correct? I mean, that did happen in the past, right?
— Sure. However, for quite sometime now, we have not truly being incurring into debt in order to invest in the future, but rather to increase our own consumption. In other words, we are being greedy. We pull out the credit card (so to speak), get the money, and immediately spend it. There is no investment there!
— I see. Your problem, then, is not so much with the fact that there is a debt, but what we are choosing to do with the money we obtain via credit. We are not doing anything really productive with it. We are definitely not investing it into the future. Rather, we are just burning it all here and now, without any consideration whatsover for what the future might bring. Is that correct?
— Yes.
— OK. So, it seems to me that you find it quite irresponsible (indeed, even immoral) that we are spending all our cash on material consumption to satisfy ourselves here and now and, on top of that, we are also borrowing money from the future to spend even more. In other words, all we seem to care about is the immediate satisfaction of our needs and wishes, without any concern whatsoever for the future.
— Correct.
— I also noticed you mentioned the future generations.
— Of course. They're directly affected by our own irresponsibility. Our Government is spending far more than it raises, which means that we owe an increasing amount of money. But it's not us who will pay. It's our own kids who will have to pay. They have no say in the matter, but we are leaving them a nasty inheritance.
— I imagine you also consider that painfully irresponsible and immoral.
— Of course I do! How else would you call that? We are spending the money that we don't have, then passing the bill to our own kids, who will have to pay for our own excesses sometime in the future, when we won't be around anymore.
— I see. So, you don't think there's any excuse to allow Government debt to exist.
— No. There is no excuse. If we, regular folks, live within our means, how come the Government doesn't? It's plainly immoral.
— Does that mean that the US Government behaved in a profoundly immoral way when it resorted to the debt to pay for World War II?
— Well, no. That was different.
— Oh. Therefore, there are exceptions to the rule. I mean, there are certain cases where public debt may be allowed. In other words, there are instances where you wouldn't consider Government debt immoral.
— I suppose. But those are very special circumstances.
— For example?
— Well, like the case you just mentioned. In case of war, it may be necessary to incur into debt in the short term in order to defend our national interest.
— But it's immoral, isn't it? Are you saying that we should do something immoral in order to defend our national interest?
— Well, no. What I'm saying is that, under such special circumsntances, it would be OK to borrow money...
— ...and temporarily live beyond our means, right?
— Well, sure. How else could we do it? It'd be a situation of emergency. The national interest comes first.
— Which leads me to conclude, then, that there are moral considerations that are more important than the moral precept against incurring debt. Isn't that the case? They may be exceptional, but they do exist. You just admitted that much.
— Yes but, again, they are very exceptional.
— OK, I won't press the issue any further. I fully understand this is a can of worms. Once we accept an exception to the moral rule, we'd have to decide what is it exactly that justifies an exception. I hope you will see that there is room for discussion there. You may consider that only a military threat to the survival of the country is an exception large enough to justify Government debt, but other people may consider other things (a serious economic depression, a natural catastrophe...) to be substantial enough to justify the practice of borrowing money.
— But that will take us back to the same point then!
— Listen, it wasn't me who first said that World War II was a peculiar circumstance that did justify the resort to Government debt. I just pointed out that the moral principle according to which we shouldn't spend beyond our means is not to be considered the cornerstone of the whole moral edifice. In other words, there are other principles and considerations that may take precedence. The problem, of course, is to decide which principles are those. I don't know about you, but I can only think of one legitimate way to decide those matters: through public debate and democracy. In any case, we agree that, in general, the principle according to which we should strive to live within our means is to be upheld. Let's not worry about the exceptions right now. There are other issues I'd like to bring up.

The problem with private debt

— Let's turn now to the problem of private debt.

The problem with the ecological debt

The problem with a whole lifestyle