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Saturday, 27 June 2009

Mountains of Debt: America's Economic Realities

Charles Wheelan, Ph.D.

Ben Franklin supposedly said that it's better to skip supper and go to bed hungry than it is to wake up in debt. Ben would be quite disappointed in us. We Americans didn't skip dinner; instead, we opted over the past decade to gorge at the buffet and then charge it.

We woke up as the world's largest debtor -- so deeply in debt that our global creditors are getting nervous, and rightfully so.

Here are some economic realities associated with our deepening fiscal hole.

It's bad. As in, $11 trillion bad. That number alone doesn't mean much, at least without context. So here is some context. First, that's roughly $40,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. Second, our debt is projected to grow to roughly 100 percent of GDP by 2010, meaning that, if we were to devote everything we produce as a nation to paying down debt, it would take us an entire year to pay off what we owe.

Eating Up the Global Capital Pool

Other countries have become more indebted as a percentage of GDP, but they were small countries, so they sucked up less of the global capital pool. There is only so much money in the world, and we have borrowed a shocking proportion of it. The only other time the U.S. has been so indebted was at the end of World War II.

Big debt means big interest payments. The Chinese haven't loaned us a trillion dollars because we're good-looking; they've loaned us a trillion dollars because we pay for the privilege of using that capital. Interest payments now make up more than 8 percent of the federal budget -- meaning that nearly one of every 10 of your tax dollars gets you absolutely nothing in return. No schools, no bridges, no domestic wiretaps. That's just the cost of servicing the debt we've run up.

And we've done nothing terribly productive with all that borrowed money. Debt, after all, is not inherently bad. If you borrow $100,000 to go to medical school, then you've probably done a very smart thing. When you graduate, your earning potential will be higher, enabling you to live better even after you pay off the loans (with interest). In this case, you used borrowed money to invest in something that made you more productive.

Now suppose that you borrowed $100,000 to sustain a lifestyle that you could not otherwise afford: to pay the rent, to buy nice clothes, and to make the payments on your luxury car. When that bill comes due (with interest), you're no more productive than you were when you started borrowing. You borrowed used money for consumption, not investment.

Unfortunately, America's borrowing resembles the latter more than the former. We haven't upgraded our transportation infrastructure or made major investments in alternative energy or financed education for those who could not otherwise afford it.

Stop the Bickering

We need to stop bickering about who got us here. Was it the Bush tax cuts (yes) or the Obama stimulus (yes) or profligate Congressional spending (yes) or voters who continually reward pork more than parsimony (yes)? But analyzing just overcomplicates things. We are deeply in debt because we have routinely spent more than we collect in taxes. That's just a mathematical reality that has become needlessly confounded with politics.

If you're a small government conservative, that's great. But let's say enough of the tax cuts without corresponding spending cuts. Those aren't tax cuts; they are tax postponements. You've just left the bill for future taxpayers, with interest.

And if you believe that government can and should build a stronger America, terrific. I'm sympathetic: I like early childhood education and the high-speed rail and Army sharpshooters who kill pirates. If you want those things, then pay for them.

Big government or small government, the revenues need to equal the expenditures. It really is that simple.

When the Big Bills Come Due

The big bills haven't even come due yet. If the U.S. were a family, we'd be crouched over the kitchen table trying to figure out how to pay the Amex and Visa bills -- and the gigantic Mastercard bill would still be in the mail.

The big bill still in the mail for the United States is for our entitlement programs -- primarily Social Security and Medicare. We've made huge commitments to these programs that are not adequately funded. That Social Security check you're counting on when you turn 65 doesn't show up in the debt figures, but it's still money that we will owe. Lots and lots of money.

And the Chinese are worried U.S. debt, as they should be. All debtors have creditors; ours are all over the world. The biggest one is the Chinese government, which has been buying up U.S. Treasury bonds with all the vigor and foresight of a 1990s Las Vegas real estate developer.

If we don't honor our bonds, China doesn't get to repossess the White House or the national parks; they don't get to carve their own leaders on Mt. Rushmore. Treasury debt is secured by the "full faith and credit of the U.S. government" -- which won't command much at auction, if it comes to a foreclosure type situation.

Chinese officials aren't worried about bankruptcy because the U.S. has an easier and more insidious option -- we can print our way out of the problem. Our debt is denominated in dollars, and the U.S. government has the authority to print those dollars. We could take a page from the Zimbabwe policy manual and just print money to pay our bills -- thereby debasing the currency, creating inflation, and devaluing the real value of what we owe.

Is that a sensible solution? No, as it imposes the costs of inflation on all of us. I don't know anyone eager to revisit the 1970s (in terms of economic performance or fashion).

Is it a possibility? You bet. In fact, I'm surprised that long-term interest rates haven't climbed more than they have. (When long-term lenders fear inflation, they demand higher interest rates to protect against that contingency.)

The solution to all this is straightforward: Spend less than we take in, and use the surplus to pay down debt. At the risk of lapsing into economics jargon, yes, this is going to suck. Think about it: Americans don't like their current tax bills -- which aren't even high enough to pay for our current spending, let alone the bills we've run up from the past. In the future, we will have to pay more and get less.

But we've done it before. We paid off the debt accumulated during World War II. In fact, the ensuing decades saw some of the most impressive gains in wealth and productivity in American history. But it will require a radical change from what we're doing now.

An economic recovery will help. But we can't pretend that will be enough. We need to raise taxes, cut spending, and/or reform our entitlement programs. Probably all three, and in a serious way.

Will that dampen economic growth in the short run? Yes. Will it jeopardize important social programs? Yes. Will it compromise our ability to make important public investments? Yes. Does it limit what we can spend on healthcare reform? Yes.

But as Ben Franklin would have pointed out, we should have thought about that before ordering room service and then charging it to a credit card.

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