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For readers unacquainted with the phrase “Achilles’ heel” and those who may have have forgotten its derivation, the term originated in the legend of Greek hero Achilles.

According to the legend, the infant Achilles was dipped into the river Styx by his mother, Thetis, to make him immortal. The only portion of his body not immersed into the water was one heel, by which his mother held him. As a result, the one heel remained vulnerable. He was later killed by an arrow that struck that heel.

Today, Achilles’ heel is only used with the general meaning of a fault or weakness that causes or could cause someone or something to fail.

For instance, a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people, and exercised by them directly or indirectly through their elected representatives — being the essence of a democracy as prevails in the United States — is, by its very nature, prone to experience a fault or weakness that could cause it to ultimately fail.

That weakness is its reliance on the incurrences of debt as an alternative to taxes or restraining of expenditures to fund its budget.

And why does that proneness exist? The answer is actually pretty evident to anyone who decodes the noun “representatives” and its adjective “elected.”

To be “elected” by the people as their “representative,” a person must appeal to the electorate more than another person or persons competing for the same position. That appeal for those entitled to vote innately calls for avoidance of references to the voters that they must pay for the government services they want, such as directly or implicitly espousing new taxes.

Since it would be unlawful for a candidate appealing to be the voters’ “representative” to demand from the voters a quid pro quo for representation, there is a lawful means for obtaining that quid pro quo. It goes something like this: “Vote for me and I will work to get the government services you want through the public coffers by incurring more government debt, if necessary.”

What an appealing route to take for the aspiring candidate for a national public office.

And there you have it: democracy’s weakness or Achilles’ heel.

And candidates for national public office or ensconced public-office holders, regardless of their political party, indulge in piling on public debt as an alternative to imposing new taxes or curbing the growth of government services.

We have a national debt rapidly approaching $28 trillion dollars, which reached 100% of gross domestic debt in the past fiscal year. It is expected to rise to a record 107% of economic output by 2031, with anticipated cumulative deficits of $12.6 trillion over the next 10 years, driven in large measure by entitlement programs.

With all of that, Congress is expected soon to appropriate a $1.9 trillion stimulus package with relief payments to individuals.

In his State of the State address to the West Virginia Legislature on Feb. 10, Gov. Jim Justice related that, with this stimulus, “there is a good chance that a lot of different things will happen to West Virginia. A lot of good things will happen to West Virginia.”

The current U.S. national debt is made more tolerable, at least in some peoples’ minds, by record-low interest rates on the debt, hovering around zero for a number of years.

When interest rates normalize by getting close to historic levels, then the nation’s mountain of debt will become extremely expensive to service.

In late January of this year, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged President Joe Biden to declare climate change a “national emergency,” which Schumer said would unlock over a hundred additional presidential powers to tackle the overheating planet.

Schumer is quoted as having said, “If there ever was an emergency, the climate crisis is one.” A fortiori: If there ever was an emergency, the magnitude, and the ever-increasing size of the federal debt crisis is one.

If the president declares climate change a national emergency, he should simultaneously declare the federal debt crisis a national emergency.

What accounts for the prevailing popular nonchalance about the ever-increasing amount of the national debt? At my age, and those much younger than I, say now in their 50s, 60s and older, we likely will be in our graves before the nation’s mounting debt becomes catastrophic.

What about those of a younger age, such as the millennial-aged population? Why are they so indifferent about the ever-increasing federal debt, which undoubtedly will negatively impact their lives and current expectations? My notion of their nonchalance is that their focus is entirely on the present and making out in a troubled nation and world, and they have no time or interest in focusing on what they regard as contingencies in the far future.

My view is that our nation will never face up to the perils of the ever-increasing debt until it is too late to avoid its associated financial disaster.

Yes, a rising national debt is an Achilles’ heel for a democracy, such as we have in the United States.

Charles McElwee practiced law for more than 50 years, graduated from West Virginia University School of Law and is a founding partner of Robinson & McElwee.