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Wednesday, July 8, 2020 Leer en Español

NBA Player’s Economic Social Justice Message Fails to Get League Approval

Spencer Dinwiddie is seeking to offer a simple social message: that massive public debt carries consequences.

Image credit: YouTube screenshot from Josh Hart

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association reportedly reached an agreement Friday over what social cause messages can be displayed on jerseys when play resumes July 30.

Following the high-profile deaths of young black men such as Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and most recently George Floyd, the NBA announced last month it was considering allowing players to use personalized statements—such as “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe”—on jerseys to promote social justice causes.

This week a source told ESPN’s The Undefeated that the following are the list of messages players will be allowed to wear: Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; and Mentor.

FEE readers will notice that one proposed social message is missing from the list: “Trillion.”

That is the message Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie sought to include to raise awareness about America’s surging national debt.

“If you’re wondering what I’m gonna put on the back of my jersey it’ll be ‘Trillion,” Dinwiddie tweeted June 28. “A lot of issues at the moment. I think the fact that the country is 26 (ironically) Trillion dollars in debt is high on the list.” (Dinwiddie sports #26 on his jersey.)

As I wrote last week, Dinwiddie was correct that the debt is a serious social cause—especially for young Americans—and one that receives astonishingly little attention even though excessive debt harms the future of young and unborn Americans.

In modern times, the national debt is always growing, because the US government keeps borrowing more than it pays back. It has to do that, because it keeps spending more than it collects in taxes. It’s like the old guy at the bar who runs a tab because every night he buys $200 in drinks but only pays $180, $150, or $190.

But it’s wrong to think of the national debt as an “old people” concern. The truth is, it’s young people who should be especially concerned about the surging federal debt, not the old man at the tavern running up the bill.

Baby boomers and Gen Xers have much less to worry about when it comes to surging debts that will require massive interest payments—$1 trillion annually by 2029, if not sooner—in the coming decades. Most of them also already have lots of job experience and decades of work in the bank. Many have accumulated assets and retirement savings.

The economic futures of young people, however, depend on a vibrant economy that offers similar opportunities—jobs, entrepreneurship, and the chance to get ahead. Unfortunately, that’s going to be much more difficult with a $26 trillion national debt that is rapidly growing.

The old man at the bar doesn’t have much to worry about, of course. The bartender is still pouring him drinks since he’s worked out a deal that the old man’s kids and grandkids will be responsible for payment.

This is a sweet deal for the old man with his nose in a Manhattan each night, but it’s not such a good deal for his children and grandchildren. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing compassionate about saddling future generations with debts they cannot repay.

Dinwiddie on Tuesday announced he would be sitting out the remainder of the season following a second positive test for the coronavirus, so the NBA’s decision is moot, at least as far as the national debt goes.

Nevertheless, Dinwiddie’s message remains important. To be clear, these generations will not be able to repay these debts, the interest of which will soon eclipse $1 trillion annually. If the federal debt were paid down by $1,000 per second, it would take eight centuries to pay off, economist Ant Davies and political scientist James Harrigan calculate.

The discussion on the debt is especially relevant considering that the world is approaching a pivotal moment, with a looming recession and potential global depression. Facing such threats, there will be intense pressure for governments to simply borrow and spend more money to resuscitate a floundering economy.

Nearly 90 years ago, in the midst of the Great Depression, four economists from London University economists—including a young F.A. Hayek who more than 50 years later would win a Nobel Prize in economics—warned about fighting economic depressions with public spending.

“We are of the opinion that many of the troubles of the world at the present time are due to improvident borrowing and spending on the part of the public authorities,” the economists wrote. “The depression has abundantly shown that the existence of public debt on a large scale imposes frictions and obstacles to readjustment very much greater than the frictions and obstacles imposed by the existence of private debt.”

Unfortunately, these economists were not heeded.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been elected on a promise to balance the federal budget and rein in a deficit that had surged to nearly $3,000,000,000, opted to continue deficit spending.

“To balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people,” Roosevelt explained in a 1936 campaign speech in Pittsburgh. “To do so we should either have had to make a capital levy that would have been confiscatory, or we should have had to set our face against human suffering with callous indifference. When Americans suffered, we refused to pass by on the other side. Humanity came first.”

Less than two years later, with the country enduring a “Depression within a Depression,” Roosevelt went even further. In his annual address to Congress, he announced he was seeking massive new spending without tax increases, marking the completion of the government’s shift to Keynesianism.

From 1933-1939, federal expenditures roughly tripled. As a result, the Great Depression was the “longest, deepest, and most widespread” economic depression of the century.

Spencer Dinwiddie is seeking to offer a simple social message: that massive public debt carries consequences. It may not be a trendy cause, but it is one that we neglect at our own economic peril.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of at the Foundation for Economic Education.