National Debt Grows $1 Million a Minute

The Associated Press
Monday 03 December 2007

Washington – Like a ticking time bomb, the national debt is an explosion waiting to happen. It’s expanding by about $1.4 billion a day – or nearly $1 million a minute.

What’s that mean to you?

It means net financial assets are growing by only that much. 1.5% of GDP isn’t enough to support our credit structure needed to sustain aggregate demand over time.

It means almost $30,000 in debt for each man, woman, child and infant in the United States.

No, it means 30,000 in net financial assets for each.

Even if you’ve escaped the recent housing and credit crunches and are coping with rising fuel prices, you may still be headed for economic misery, along with the rest of the country.

Yes!

That’s because the government is fast straining resources needed to meet interest payments on the national debt, which stands at a mind-numbing $9.13 trillion.

No, it’s because the deficit is too small to supply the net financial assets we need to sustain demand, given the institutional structure that removes demand via tax advantage savings programs.

And like homeowners who took out adjustable-rate mortgages, the government faces the prospect of seeing this debt – now at relatively low interest rates – rolling over to higher rates, multiplying the financial pain.

Only if the fed hikes rates.

So long as somebody is willing to keep loaning the U.S. government money, the debt is largely out of sight, out of mind.

Government securities offer us interest bearing alternative to non interest bearing reserve accounts.

But the interest payments keep compounding, and could in time squeeze out most other government spending –

Operationally, spending is totally independent of revenues. The only constraints are self imposed.

leading to sharply higher taxes or a cut in basic services like Social Security and other government benefit programs. Or all of the above.

Only if congress votes that way..

A major economic slowdown, as some economists suggest may be looming, could hasten the day of reckoning.

The national debt – the total accumulation of annual budget deficits – is up from $5.7 trillion when President Bush took office in January 2001 and it will top $10 trillion sometime right before or right after he leaves in January 2009.

Too small as it is the equity behind our credit structure.

That’s $10,000,000,000,000.00, or one digit more than an odometer-style “national debt clock” near New York’s Times Square can handle. When the privately owned automated clock was activated in 1989, the national debt was $2.7 trillion.

It is also the national ‘savings’ clock as government deficit = non government accumulation of net financial dollar assets.

It only gets worse.

So does this article.

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Over the next 25 years, the number of Americans aged 65 and up is expected to almost double. The work population will shrink and more and more baby boomers will be drawing Social Security and Medicare benefits, putting new demands on the government’s resources.

The government spends by changing the number in someone’s bank account. Spending puts the same demands on government resources as running up the score at a football game puts strain on the stadium’s resources needed to post the score.

These guaranteed retirement and health benefit programs now make up the largest component of federal spending. Defense is next. And moving up fast in third place is interest on the national debt, which totaled $430 billion last year.

All interest expense is net income to the non government sectors.

Aggravating the debt picture: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates could cost $2.4 trillion over the next decade

That will be an aggregate demand add. What are the subtractions going to be? Increased pension funds assets, IRA’s, insurance reserves, and all of the other tax advantage ‘savings incentives’. To date, these have dwarfed government deficit spending and resulted in a chronic shortage of aggregate demand and massive economic under performance.

Despite vows in both parties to restrain federal spending, the national debt as a percentage of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product has grown from about 35 percent in 1975 to around 65 percent today.

Last I heard it was still 35%? But, as above, whatever it is, it is still not sufficient to support demand at ‘full employment’ levels. Our employment rate assumes large chunks of the population aren’t working because they don’t want to and wouldn’t work if desirable jobs were offered to them. The experience of the lat 90’s shows this isn’t true. With the right paid jobs available, employment could increase perhaps by 10%.

By historical standards, it’s not proportionately as high as during World War II – when it briefly rose to 120 percent of GDP, but it’s a big chunk of liability.

Didn’t seem to hurt war output!

“The problem is going forward,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poors, a major credit-rating agency.

“Our estimate is that the national debt will hit 350 percent of the GDP by 2050 under unchanged policy. Something has to change, because if you look at what’s going to happen to expenditures for entitlement programs after us baby boomers start to retire, at the current tax rates, it doesn’t work,” Wyss said.

The only thing that ‘doesn’t work’ is the 10% of the work force that is kept on the sidelines by too tight fiscal policy.

With national elections approaching, candidates of both parties are talking about fiscal discipline and reducing the deficit and accusing the other of irresponsible spending.

Yes, and that is the biggest continuing systemic risk to the real economy – not a bunch of write downs in the financial sector.

But the national debt itself – a legacy of overspending dating back to the American Revolution – receives only occasional mention.

Who is loaning Washington all this money?

Who has all the money looking to buy government securities is the right question. And it’s the same funds that come from deficit spending. Deficit spending is best thought of as government first spending, then selling securities to provide those funds with a place to earn interest. The fed calls that process ‘offsetting operating factors’.

Ordinary investors who buy Treasury bills, notes and U.S. savings bonds, for one. Also it is banks, pension funds, mutual fund companies and state, local and increasingly foreign governments. This accounts for about $5.1 trillion of the total and is called the “publicly held” debt.

It’s also called the total net financial assets of non government sectors when you add cash in circulation and reserve balances kept at the fed.

The remaining $4 trillion is owed to Social Security and other government accounts, according to the Treasury Department, which keeps figures on the national debt down to the penny on its Web site.

Intergovernment transfers have no effect on the non government sectors’ aggregate demand.

Some economists liken the government’s plight to consumers who spent like there was no tomorrow – only to find themselves maxed out on credit cards and having a hard time keeping up with rising interest payments.

Those economist have it totally backwards and are a disgrace to the profession.

“The government is in the same predicament as the average homeowner who took out an adjustable mortgage,” said Stanley Collender, a former congressional budget analyst and now managing director at Qorvis Communications, a business consulting firm.

Wrong.

Much of the recent borrowing has been accomplished through the selling of shorter-term Treasury bills. If these loans roll over to higher rates, interest payments on the national debt could soar.

Wrong. The fed sets short term rates, not markets, and long term rates as well if it wants to.

Furthermore, the decline of the dollar against other major currencies is making Treasury securities less attractive to foreigners – even if they remain one of the world’s safest investments.

For now, large U.S. trade deficits with much of the rest of the world work in favor of continued foreign investment in Treasuries and dollar-denominated securities. After all, the vast sums Americans pay – in dollars – for imported goods has to go somewhere.

He’s getting warmer with that last bit!

But that dynamic could change.

“The first day the Chinese or the Japanese or the Saudis say, `we’ve bought enough of your paper,’ then the debt – whatever level it is at that point – becomes unmanageable,” said Collender.

Define ‘unmanageable’ please.

A recent comment by a Chinese lawmaker suggesting the country should buy more euros instead of dollars helped send the Dow Jones plunging more than 300 points.

Ok.

The dollar is down about 35 percent since the end of 2001 against a basket of major currencies.

Ok. Is that all there is to ‘unmanageable’? How about 10 year treasuries coming down below 4% as the dollar went down? How does he reconcile that?

Foreign governments and investors now hold some $2.23 trillion – or about 44 percent – of all publicly held U.S. debt. That’s up 9.5 percent from a year earlier.

Point?

Japan is first with $586 billion, followed by China ($400 billion) and Britain ($244 billion). Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting countries account for $123 billion, according to the Treasury.

“Borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from China and OPEC puts not only our future economy, but also our national security, at risk.

In what way? This is nonsense.

It is critical that we ensure that countries that control our debt do not control our future,” said Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, a Republican budget hawk.

They already don’t. We control their future. Their accumulated funds are only worth what we want them to be. We control the price level. They are the ones at risk.

Of all federal budget categories, interest on the national debt is the one the president and Congress have the least control over. Cutting payments would amount to default, something Washington has never done.

Why would they? Functionally that’s a tax, and there are sufficient legal tax channels. So why use an illegal one?

Congress must from time to time raise the debt limit – sort of like a credit card maximum – or the government would be unable to borrow any further to keep it operating and to pay additional debt obligations.

Yes, that is a self-imposed constraint, not inherent in the monetary system that needs to go. If congress has approved the spending, that is sufficient.

The Democratic-led Congress recently did just that, raising the ceiling to $9.82 trillion as the former $8.97 trillion maximum was about to be exceeded. It was the fifth debt-ceiling increase since Bush became president in 2001.

Democrats are blaming the runup in deficit spending on Bush and his Republican allies who controlled Congress for the first six years of his presidency.

Not that I approve of the specifics of his tax cuts and spending increase, but good thing he did run up the deficit or we would be in the middle of a much worse economy.

They criticize him for resisting improvements in health care, education and other vital areas while seeking nearly $200 billion in new Iraq and Afghanistan war spending.

Different point.

“We pay in interest four times more than we spend on education and four times what it will cost to cover 10 million children with health insurance for five years,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “That’s fiscal irresponsibility.”

She is way out of paradigm. We can ‘afford’ both if the real excess capacity is there without raising taxes.

Republicans insist congressional Democrats are the irresponsible ones. Bush has reinforced his call for deficit reduction with vetoes and veto threats and cites a looming “train wreck” if entitlement programs are not reined in.

Both sides are pathetic.

Yet his efforts two years ago to overhaul Social Security had little support, even among fellow Republicans.

It was ridiculous. There is no solvency risk with social security or any other government spending requirement. Only a potential inflation risk. And the total lack of discussion regarding that is testimony to the total lack of understanding of public finance.

The deficit only reflects the gap between government spending and tax revenues for one year. Not exactly how a family or a business keeps its books.

Even during the four most recent years when there was a budget surplus, 1998-2001, the national debt ranged between $5.5 trillion and $5.8 trillion.

As in trying to pay off a large credit-card balance by only making minimum payments, the overall debt might be next to impossible to chisel down appreciably, regardless of who is in the White House or which party controls Congress, without major spending cuts, tax increases or both.

“The basic facts are a matter of arithmetic, not ideology,” said Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates eliminating federal deficits.

Deficit terrorists.

There’s little dispute that current fiscal policies are unsustainable, he said.

Sad but true.

“Yet too few of our elected leaders in Washington are willing to acknowledge the seriousness of the long-term fiscal problem and even fewer are willing to put it on the political agenda.”

Fortunately!!!

Polls show people don’t like the idea of saddling future generations with debt, but proposing to pay down the national debt itself doesn’t move the needle much.

Our poor kids are going to have to send the real goods and services back in time to pay off the debt???? WRONG! Each generation gets to consume the output they produce. None gets sent back in time to pay off previous generations.

“People have a tendency to put some of these longer term problems out of their minds because they’re so pressed with more imminent worries, such as wages and jobs and income inequality,” said pollster Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.

Good!

Texas billionaire Ross Perot made paying down the national debt a central element of his quixotic third-party presidential bid in 1992. The national debt then stood at $4 trillion and Perot displayed charts showing it would soar to $8 trillion by 2007 if left unchecked. He was about a trillion low.

Fortunately!

Not long ago, it actually looked like the national debt could be paid off – in full. In the late 1990s, the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office projected a surplus of a $5.6 trillion over ten years – and calculated the debt would be paid off as early as 2006.

That therefore projected net financial assets for the non government sectors would fall that much. Not possible!!! Causes recession long before that and the countercyclical tax structure fortunately builds up deficit spending (unfortunately via falling government revenue due to unemployment and lower profits) sufficiently to ‘automatically’ trigger a recovery.

Former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan recently wrote that he was “stunned” and even troubled by such a prospect. Among other things, he worried about where the government would park its surplus if Treasury bonds went out of existence because they were no longer needed.

Not to worry. That surplus quickly evaporated.

As above.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, said he’s more concerned that interest on the national debt will become unsustainable than he is that foreign countries will dump their dollar holdings – something that would undermine the value of their own vast holdings. “We’re going to have to shell out a lot of resources to make those interest payments.

Interest payments do not involve government ‘shelling out resources’ but only changing numbers in bank accounts. ‘Unsustainable’ is not applicable.

There’s a very strong argument as to why it’s vital that we address our budget issues before they get measurably worse,” Zandi said.

“Of course, that’s not going to happen until after the next president is in the White House,” he added.

Might be longer than that.


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