The Sky is Falling! Or is it?
I believe one of the most misunderstood areas of the U.S. economy today is the disdain shown by the average American citizen over the current level of the United States’ national debt which now totals $9.4T. Yes, currently the U.S. Government owes a collective $9.4T to American households, American institutions, and foreigners since the U.S. government has spent in excess of its tax revenue during most years, which, in economic speak is called “deficit spending”.
The shear magnitude of the U.S. national debt ($9.4T), coupled with alarmist comments by the U.S. Congress and the American press lead most Americans to conclude that our country is in a very precarious position and has perhaps grossly mismanaged its financial affairs. Moreover, more Americans are becoming aware that future Federal payouts for social security and Medicare alone, assuming current benefit levels, will rise at a much faster rate than the current tax revenues for those same social programs.
Well, guess what, I am here to tell you the concern is vastly overstated!
THE IMPORTANCE OF DEBT TO A COUNTRY (OR AN INDIVIDUAL)
Contrary to what many Americans believe to be conventional wisdom, debt is actually a beneficial and recommended pursuit, if used correctly, since it enables a nation or an individual to equalize income and expenditures over time, and improve standards of living earlier than what would otherwise be attainable. It is easier to accept this premise on the personal front as millions of Americans have been able to improve their standard of living currently by pulling their future incomes forward via borrowing to purchase homes, cars, and education. Of course, we all know that debt, like a car, can cause damage if it is not used and managed wisely, and that is where many alarmists focus, and even some go so far to say that all debt is bad and should be avoided. Many nations, with Russia being a prime example, have been criticized by noted economists for not utilizing enough national debt to improve their economy and their citizens’ standards of living. Thus, hopefully, with a conclusion that debt can actually be a ”good thing”, if used for productive purposes, one can then proceed to the next section as to what are acceptable levels of national debt.
$9.4T: AN ACCEPTABLE LEVEL OF NATIONAL DEBT?
The United States’ current level of national debt is both affordable and consistent with most all other nations. National accounting statistics show clearly that the U.S.’s 67% national debt/GDP percentage is roughly average compared with other modern economies, about right smack in the middle. Moreover, the level of U.S. national debt as a percentage of GDP (67%) is at the same ratio as it was back in 1997 and 1992, and is much less than it was in 1950! The ‘”trick” is that debt must be benchmarked to the size of a nation’s economy or income. I find it interesting that if I tell someone that Bill Gates owes someone $10M they quickly deduce that he’s probably fine, but if I tell the guy at Starbucks that the U.S. owes $9.4T they think the country is screwed up!
One additional benchmark is to compare the annual interest paid on the U.S. national debt ($0.4T) relative to current U.S. federal tax revenue ($2.8T) to the percentage of household interest paid as a percentage of household disposable income. Both benchmarks are currently at a 14% ratio indicating that Uncle Sam’s (U.S.) debt load is actually very consistent with Uncle John’s (households).
Much has also been made of the fact that $2.4T of the U.S. national debt, or 26%, is owed to foreigners. Big deal! It sounds scary on the surface, but once you understand it is pretty harmless. Let me explain. Foreign debt is nothing more than saved U.S. dollars which will eventually be spent back into our economy. Foreigners have temporarily not purchased our products (foreigners have U.S. dollars because we bought their products!) and have temporarily lent their dollars to the U.S. Government to finance the U.S. Government’s deficit spending. Debt held by foreigners is “dollar savings” just like debt held by American citizens is “dollar savings”, so, in other words, it is really not that important whether the debt is held by foreigners or US citizens since eventually those dollars will be spent back into the U.S. economy since they can’t be spent in another economy! By the way, the U.S. national debt owed to China is only 5% of the total debt but the newspapers make it seem like 50%.
SO IT MIGHT BE AN ACCEPTABLE LEVEL OF U.S. NATIONAL DEBT NOW, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE FUTURE?
Many have argued that the U.S. aging population coupled with the flood of “baby boomers” moving into their retirement years will cause social security and Medicare alone to “shoot through the roof” and cause the U.S. national debt to reach unacceptable and unmanageable levels, potentially, some say, even bankrupting the U.S. Government. Many use extrapolations of future social security and Medicare payments out into varying distant futures based on the number of retiring baby boomers and increasing life spans concluding that there are trillions of unfunded government obligations ($10T, $25T, $80T, etc.) which are insurmountable. The problem with most all of these analyses are that they fail to address how simple and relatively small adjustments make these problems disappear. For example, on social security, an increase in the social security tax rate from its current rate of 12.4% (6.2% for employees matched by employer) to 15.9% is deemed by one source to fully fund social security at today’s benefit structure out into perpetuity (i.e., forever). Similar analyses are out there for other actions such as updating social security retirement ages to be more consistent with longer life spans. Now granted, few would be happy with a 28% increase in their social security taxes paid or later retirement ages, but what will likely happen will be a combination of different types of changes including reduced benefits, higher taxes, later retirement ages, and reallocations of the overall federal budget.
Today’s current level of U.S. national debt is within our government’s means, is an “average” level of national debt compared to other modern economies, and has been an instrumental and, thus far, a necessary part of our country’s economic success. One should never be concerned with the increase in the nominal or absolute amount of the national debt, but rather it should be measured in relation to the corresponding growth in our nation’s economy, usually nominal GDP.
The U.S. economy has some sizable challenges ahead in terms of keeping our increasing national debt in line with increases in our economic growth. Most notably, our demographic trends of fewer births and increased retirees with longer life spans will put additional strains on our country’s debt/income relationship.
One needs to be aware of the increasing number of doomsayers and alarmists who quote projections that are too one-sided and do not paint a fair picture of our challenges ahead. Within the next several years, relatively small changes involving increasing tax rates, lowering government spending, redefining retirement & health benefits, and delaying eligibility of benefits to coincide better with increasing life spans will be necessary to position America into the future.
Originally posted at Welker’s Wikinomics Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.