Primary season is fully underway and the election year is heating up. Then again, do campaigns ever really stop nowadays? There was a time when election years stood out as what Washington talking heads referred to as “ crazy season ”: politicians making wild promises, we ordinary people egging them on, and outcomes settled in strange, unpredictable ways. Some of us fretted that election-season promises, if they came true, would involve someone else paying the bill. Others didn’t realize or care.

Now, with constant campaigning and candidates trying to outdo each other, we’ve developed a modern version of Ancient Rome’s bread and circuses — what emperors provided to their citizens in an effort to maintain power some 2,000 years ago. Only instead of relying on conquests and taxation to pay for these political gifts, American politicians have figured out how to stay in power by kicking a deficit-filled can down the road. And having the U.S. dollar — the world’s reserve currency — at their disposal means our politicians can do something Romans may have only dreamed about: put it on the country’s credit card.

Writing around 100 AD, the Roman satirical poet Juvenal observed how emperors kept the people happy while maintaining support through free monthly distribution of wheat for cooking and entertainment provided across the republic. At the Coliseum, 50,000 spectators could enjoy free access to sporting, combat, parades, and wild animal events, sometimes with food and drink provided. It was the Roman version of a Super Bowl that occurred every week.

Juvenal worried that Romans had lost their concern for the larger good and become unduly focused on what politicians could do for them individually. It was as if the politicians were constantly running for office.

Could it be that in its own way, America has stumbled onto circuses and bread? During crazy season, we might hear statements from office seekers about building a 2,000-mile wall, forgiving student debt, bringing back manufacturing jobs, providing free college education, privatizing Social Security, eliminating the IRS, making prescription medicine free, providing free internet, ending our reliance on fossil fuels and never raising taxes.

And, of course, like those sturdy Romans, we American voters want to believe them. Out of the promises come printing press money, increased spending, higher deficits and growing debt. We kick the can down the road.


Public deficits have been the norm since 1957. Since then, we have spent more federal dollars than were taken in almost every year. The surplus years 1998 through 2001 are an exception. Federal deficits mean more federal borrowing, of course, and that means spending a growing amount of what we have on the interest cost of the debt. In 2023’s fourth quarter, that figure — just for interest payments — rose above $1 trillion. Only three years earlier, the cost was not much more than half that much.

It’s worth emphasizing what should be obvious here: Paying a larger interest bill means something else cannot be purchased, unless we borrow even more money to cover the difference.

Despite these growing federal deficits, we as a nation still managed to look relatively thrifty until around 2007. Prior to that year, the people and our government still enjoyed a net savings, with the amount saved from our incomes exceeding annual government deficits. This made it possible to pay our way when consuming and supporting new investment with domestically generated funds. Net savings briefly disappeared in 2004, and by 2007, government debt began to significantly outstrip private savings.

Since 2007, taking public and private together, we have consumed more than we have produced. That requires people somewhere else to consume less than they produce and ship the excess to us. With trade protectionism in fashion today, keep this in mind. It’s simply not possible to block imports from the rest of the world without reducing the net well-being of the American people.

Unless we can depend on other major countries to pick up the tab for our consumption celebrations, bread and circuses American style may have hit a modern limit. Kicking the can may not get the job done much longer. What then? Will politicians turn to actual bread and circuses?



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