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Sunday, February 13, 2011

U.S. Government Debt: On the Pathology of Living Beyond Our Means

Fourteen times a thousand times a billion.  Such a number can only be known abstractly to the human mind.  A person is not apt to see 14 trillion widgets and thus fully realize how many that number signifies.  Just in an abstract sense, however, the number can be understood represent debt that is beyond sustainability.   If not, then exactly how much signifies the threshold over which any additional debt will never be paid back? At the beginning of 2011, the U.S. Government's debt was at about $14 trillion.

Consider the following from The New York Times when the debt figure was just $12 billionin 2009. “With the national debt now topping $12 trillion, the White House estimates that the government’s tab for servicing the debt will exceed $700 billion a year in 2019, up from $202 billion this year, even if annual budget deficits shrink drastically. Other forecasters say the figure could be much higher. In concrete terms, an additional $500 billion a year in interest expense would total more than the combined federal budgets this year for education, energy, homeland security and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” As much as the interest expense is expected to be (and the implied difficulty in paying down the debt, let alone covering its interest expense, it may be even harder before long.  According to The New York Times, “Americans now have to climb out of two deep holes: as debt-loaded consumers, whose personal wealth sank along with housing and stock prices; and as taxpayers, whose government debt has almost doubled in the last two years alone, just as costs tied to benefits for retiring baby boomers are set to explode.”

While the deficit-spending is perfectly understandable in the context of a financial crisis and otherwise likely economic depression, such spending has hardly been saved for such times.  In fact, it has been part of “normal” US Government budgeting.  What the newspaper doesn’t mention is that even in the late 1990’s when the government was running surpluses and the economy was booming, only part of the surfeit was used to reduce the government’s debt.  At the time, Bill Clinton’s administration used the “rationale” that the boom that had been going on since the mid-1980s would go on for another fifteen years from the late 90’s.   Even had that forecast been realistic, I’m not sure that all of the government surpluses together could have eliminated the public debt.

In any case, fiscally the US Government has been out of balance for decades.   What might be the cause?  Two candidates come readily to mind.  The American culture is a rather self-consumption-oriented society wherein spending beyond one’s means is not a matter of moral disapprobation.  In other words, the problem may boil down to a “gimme, gimme, gimme” mentality—a lack of maturity, really.  Secondly (and relatedly), representative democracy itself may itself favor spending over taxation to cover it.  Any normative constraint that might operate at the individual level may not exist at the institutional level where representatives are effectively rewarded for bringing home the bacon and punished for raising taxes.  Although it could be argue that the representatives should be more responsible nonetheless (as their goal ought not be simply to be reelected), we can point to ourselves, the American citizens, as the force behind the unsustainable fiscal situation.  We don’t have to endure incumbants who have spent in deficits, but we do.  The US House incumbancy rate almost guarantees that once someone is elected, he or she can be virtually assured of being re-elected in two years, und so weiter.    The problem, in other words, lies within us.  Too few of us value self-discipline in ourselves.  We are unwilling to call other people on their profligate credit-card spending, and we refuse to vote out of office those representatives who have voted outside of a financial crisis for an unbalanced budget.  Consider how different a people we would be were to insist at the ballot box that our representatives actually make a contribution to paying down some of the debt (again, not during a financial crisis) each year during their terms.  How different we would be if we held our officials accountable for more than scandal.   How different we would be if we “just said no” to the credit card companies and went without the plastic (using debit cards that could be used only on positive balances and having a savings account for emergencies).  If we look at the US Government as unsustainable, what we are really saying is that we, ourselves, are fundamentally flawed as concerning being adults.  The problem, in other words, transcends finance and politics.  We are living beyond our means.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/23/business/23rates.html?_r=1&hp