Simplifying Up to Us

Eric Nikolaides

Over the past several weeks, five UT students have made it their mission to increase awareness on campus about the national debt. Through tabling, flyering and incessant social networking, the group has been competing in Up to Us, a competition organized by The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative University and Net Impact, a nonprofit organization promoting activism among business students and professionals.

The competition pits teams of students from 12 universities against each other and aims to “engage students across the country in addressing our federal government’s long term debt,” according to the initiative’s website. But while you don’t need to be an economist to understand that the growth of our national debt is unsustainable, this campaign fails to bring us any closer to an actual solution to the national debt crisis.

 More often than not, awareness campaigns just don’t solve problems. Don’t get me wrong — an awareness campaign can be very effective for issues that don’t get the attention they deserve. But for larger, better-known issues such as breast cancer, awareness has turned into an empty marketing juggernaut that contributes little to an actual solution. Our federal government’s fiscal situation is a huge issue that certainly isn’t underappreciated; just look at how much attention the media has focused on the sequester recently.

In fact, the national debt isn’t even something that lends itself to a simplistic and easily communicated understanding. Debt is necessary to maintain a functioning economy. It simply isn’t the same as avoidable credit card debt, as Up to Us advocates are suggesting. 

I spoke with UT’s Up to Us team leader Hamid Poorsafar, and he explained that for him, the goal is to start a productive dialogue about the issue and change the direction of the fiscal debt problem. “Young people will be among those most affected by potential effects of the long-term federal debt,” he told me, “and yet they are the least involved in the discussion.” Poorsafar and his teammates are working to raise students’ awareness of the issue, “so that the next generation of leaders begins to engage on the issue and have a voice in the matter.”

But as I see it, there are only two real ways to ease the national debt: Congress can cut government spending (which will upset liberals) or raise revenues (which will upset conservatives). Congress needs to act, and there’s nothing that awareness can do to make that happen, especially since the mainstream media already covers the issue so heavily. 

Poorsafar agrees that this is the solution. As he explains, “a combination of spending cuts and increases in tax revenue is the only [way] to deal with our year-to-year fiscal deficit.” That is precisely my point.  The only way that we will see those spending cuts and revenue increases is if Congress acts, and awareness just can’t do anything to make that happen.  The national debt is a serious issue, and unfortunately, awareness just isn’t the answer.

Nikolaides is a Spanish and government senior from Cincinnati, Ohio.