Organizations incur long-term financial obligations in forms other than bonds and the U.S. federal government is no exception. Some common types of financial obligations include pension and retiree health care costs for veterans, civilian federal employees, and the general public (through Social Security and Medicare benefit commitments). Looking at the federal government’s balance sheet as of 2021, public holdings of U.S. Treasury securities make up less than one-quarter of total federal liabilities. Unfunded entitlements, like Medicare and Social Security, account for the most at 59% of obligations.
Overall federal obligations have now surpassed $300,000 per American. While substantial in their own right, the debt obligations of state and local governments across the country are dwarfed by the various categories of federal debt.
The average interest rate paid by Washington on its debt has fallen from 8.4 percent to 1.5 percent over the past three decades. However, economic variables tend to fluctuate, and only a fool would assume that a current economic trend will last forever. In the past, economic forecasts and markets told us that high inflation and high unemployment cannot happen simultaneously, that the late-1990s tech-stock bubble wouldn’t burst, and that national housing prices can never fall. Just last year, the Federal Open Market Committee consistently underestimated current-year inflation by three full percentage points. Interest-rate forecasts have proven spectacularly wrong for 50 years.
But now, economic commentators assure us that soaring federal debt is affordable because interest rates will remain low forever.
By contrast, the Congressional Budget Office projects that rates will nudge up to 4.6 percent over three decades. That is easily possible. After all, a broad range of studies show that the projected 100 percent of GDP increase in federal debt over the next three decades should, by itself, add three percentage points to interest rates. Added federal debt over the past 15 years also put upward pressure on interest rates, but this was offset by low productivity, baby-boomer savings, and Federal Reserve policies that pushed rates downward. For interest rates to remain low, those offsetting factors would have to accelerate much further to counteract the three-percentage point effect of future debt.
According to the U.S. Treasury, in fiscal 2021, the amount of interest paid on the national debt was $562 billion including government transfers. The amount actually paid out to holders of U.S. securities was $413 billion.
That figure alone, which is over 20% of what we paid in income taxes in FY 2021, should be alarming when compared to other government expenditures.
Compare the $413 billion we pay in interest to holders of these securities to the annual budgets of other parts of the government. The State Department annual budget is “only” $35 billion and the Justice Department $39 billion.
Interest rates are still near an all-time low. According to the Monthly Treasury Statement, in 2001, interest paid on the national debt was an average of 5.4%, about 3½ times what it is now.
If we get back to that rate, which is far from inconceivable, interest on the debt would cost American taxpayers $1.4 trillion, based on our present level of national debt. That is twice the budget of the Defense Department.
Congressional showdowns over the debt limit are nothing new, but this time around there’s a unique wrinkle. The House approved a bill on Tuesday night with what was essentially a party-line vote that paves the way for Congress to avoid a possible default on the national debt in the coming weeks. Here’s the tricky part: “The measure would create a special pathway—to be used only once, before mid-January—for the Senate to raise the debt limit by a specific amount with a simple majority vote, allowing Democrats to steer clear of a filibuster or other procedural hurdles so that Republicans would have no means to block it,” The New York Times reports.
The upshot, assuming this deal holds up long enough to avert the December 15 deadline for raising the debt limit, is that there won’t be another showdown like this before the midterm elections next November.
It’s true, of course, that $1 trillion doesn’t buy what it used to. That amount in 1981 would purchase about $3 trillion worth of stuff today. The best way to measure the national debt over long periods of time is to compare it to America’s gross domestic product (GDP), a rough estimate of the size of the country’s economy in a given year.
In the early 1980s, for example, even as the gross national debt exceeded $1 trillion for the first time, the national debt was less than 40 percent of GDP. The national debt is now equivalent to the country’s GDP and is on pace to be nearly 200 percent of GDP by the middle of the century, as this chart from Brian Riedl, a deficit hawk and former Republican Senate staffer now working at the Manhattan Institute, helpfully illustrates:
In 1934, the United States defaulted on the fourth Liberty Bond. The contracts between debtor and creditor on these bonds was clear. The bonds were to be payable in gold. This presented a big problem for the US, which was facing big debts into the 1930s after the First World War.
So how did the US government deal with this? Chamberlain notes “Roosevelt decided to default on the whole of the domestically-held debt by refusing to redeem in gold to Americans.”
The US offered to pay its creditors in paper dollars, but only in new, devalued dollars.1 This constituted default on these Liberty Bonds, since, as the Supreme Court noted in Perry v. United States, Congress had “regulated the value of money so as to invalidate the obligations which the Government had theretofore issued in the exercise of the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States.”
This was clearly not a case of the US making good on its debt obligations, and to claim this is not default requires the sort of hairsplitting that only the most credulous Beltway insider could embrace.
The clock currently reads $28 trillion, give or take, and will grow rapidly in the coming years. The coronavirus pandemic has cost the U.S. economy $16 trillion, give or take, and Congress appropriated more than $3 trillion in aid in 2020.
The United States has had an up-and-down relationship with debt. One of Congress’s first actions was to assume states’ Revolutionary War debt in exchange for moving the country’s permanent capital to Washington, D.C. Alexander Hamilton saw collective debt as a way to build the nation — and its international credit — and bind the several states together in common cause.
“I believe it a national curse,” Jackson said in 1824. “My vow shall be to pay the national debt, to prevent a monied aristocracy from growing up around our administration that must bend it to its views, and ultimately destroy the liberty of our country.”
Jackson followed through on his promise, vetoing virtually every spending bill and using federal funds to pay down the debt until it was fully paid off in 1837 — right before a six-year economic depression that pumped it back up again.
World War II ballooned the debt as the nation ratcheted up defense spending to finance the war, causing the country’s debt to rise to more than 100% of gross domestic product. (Debt is usually measured as a percentage of GDP to make it comparable across different periods of time.)
Once per calendar quarter, the state of Michigan conducts a Consensus Revenue Estimating Conference that provides updates on both the national and state economies and the state’s fiscal outlook. The May conference each year is especially significant because it sets the official revenue targets for the next fiscal year’s state budget.
Another chart broke down the components of personal income. Over the previous four quarters, personal income was nearly $3,000 higher than pre-pandemic forecasts had expected. However, employee compensation actually declined by about half that amount. The entire increase is the result of the 53 percent increase in federal transfer payments that have floated U.S. households over the past year.
Second, there is another $12 trillion in dollar-denominated assets issued by entities outside the United States, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Combine this with the dollar assets exported from the United States, and there exists roughly $32 trillion in relatively liquid and safe dollar assets abroad, as seen in the figure below.
There is no other currency system that comes close to providing so many safe and liquid assets to the world. On one hand, this outcome is not surprising, given the dollar’s dominant role in the global economy. On the other hand, the implication of this fact is astonishing: There is no alternative source of safe and liquid assets available on such a large scale. This means that if investors wanted to break up with the global dollar system, there would be nowhere else to go to meet all their relationship needs.
There are eerie parallels today. In 1973, the U.S. was coming off a two-year experiment in wage and price controls, which artificially depressed prices and muted signals that the economy was overheating. Then, too, the Fed pursued an easy-money policy, keeping interest rates low — though considerably higher than now, and without today’s purchases of bonds and mortgage securities.
By the end of 1972, before the inflationary jump, the U.S. economy seemed even stronger than it is now, growing at an annual rate of more than 8%. Unemployment was down to 3.4%, and inflation was a seemingly manageable 5.6%. The pre-pandemic 2020 U.S. economy was also very strong, growing at a 3% annual rate, with historically low unemployment of under 4% and inflation hovering around only 1%.
In 2021 we’re emerging from the pandemic shutdown, which cratered growth and slammed the economy — depressing price pressures, not unlike what the price-control program did 50 years ago. Today’s Fed policies are even more expansive. And Congress has just enacted a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill — on top of earlier relief bills costing another nearly $2 trillion, a lot of which remains unspent and will continue to fuel demand this year and beyond.
The numbers here are simply staggering. Consider the fact that in 2019, the last full budget year before the pandemic, the federal government spent a grand total of $4.4 trillion. Combined with the bill that already passed in March, this plan represents nearly $5 trillion in new spending.
Though the specifics of the proposal are in flux, it seems to bear some similarities to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) that Biden signed into law earlier this month. That bill was ostensibly a COVID-19 relief measure, but only a small percentage of the money was actually directed toward dealing with the pandemic. The upcoming $3 trillion package will be called an infrastructure bill, but the Times says only about $1 trillion would be directed toward such traditional infrastructure items as roads, bridges, ports, and improvements to the electric grid.
It is a miracle anyone ever listens to us. Honestly, sometimes they shouldn’t. Other than the theory of comparative advantage, I can’t think of any correct economic insights that defy common sense. Economists, or experts in any field, are meant to offer a framework to weigh costs and benefits, help us see risks, and understand how the economy and people respond to shocks and policy. This helps people make choices that are right for them. If someone is pushing something totally counterintuitive, whether in economics or public health, we should be skeptical.
The same goes for debt. I heard someone say MMT has become an accepted theory – that is simply not true. And there is nothing new here. If you look at the history of debt cycles and financial crisis, they often featured some convoluted justification for why taking on tons of leverage isn’t so risky after all because this time was different – we are so much more clever now. Guess what, you might use some big words that tell you otherwise, but debt is always risky. Sure, some of the time it works out and juices higher growth, but when it doesn’t, things get really nasty.