Debt limit nonsense

The sky’s the limit

Some things are stated as fact which are nothing of the kind. Right up until the Congressional deal raising the debt ceiling news anchors were parroting that without it the United States government would default. This is nonsense.

Over the next year the US government will take in around $3 trillion in taxes. The interest payments on its $16.9 trillion debt in that period are estimated at around $240 billion. As long as its income is greater than its debt repayments there is no reason whatsoever why the US government should default on those debt repayments.

It may choose to do so, deciding to anger China rather than domestic recipients of Federal money, but there is nothing automatic about it. But at some point the US government will default on somebody.

Since 2002 US government debt has risen from $6 trillion to nearly $17 trillion, a rise of 183%. Under George W. Bush it increased at $625 billion a year, and in 2008 Senator Obama was moved to declare “That’s irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic.” Under President Obama that debt has increased by $900 billion a year. It now stands at around 73% of GDP, or $131,368 for every man, woman, and child in America. Even with record low interest rates, by 2015 repayments on this debt will come to $50,000 a year for each American family [1].

And the situation is forecast to get worse. The Congressional Budget Office’s September 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook warns that government spending is set to outstrip revenues in each of at least the next twenty-five years with the gap opening from 2% of GDP at its narrowest point in 2015 to 6.5% of GDP at its widest in 2038, “larger than in any year between 1947 and 2008”. As a result, after a slight improvement between 2014 and 2018, Federal government debt as a percentage of GDP is projected to rise from about 75% to around 100% in 2038.

The CBO identifies the drivers of this increased spending and debt as “increasing interest costs and growing spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies to be provided through health insurance exchanges)”. Spending on the “major health care programs and Social Security”, the CBO writes, “would increase to a total of 14 percent of GDP by 2038, twice the 7 percent average of the past 40 years” and “The federal government’s net interest payments would grow to 5 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 2 percent over the past 40 years”.

The CBO’s conclusion is stark; “Unless substantial changes are made to the major health care programs and Social Security, those programs will absorb a much larger share of the economy’s total output in the future than they have in the past”. Sadly for the taxpayers of 2038 these are just the changes President Obama and Congressional Democrats steadfastly refuse to consider.

But a refusal to see reality doesn’t make that reality go away. These sorts of figures are unprecedented in peacetime and unsustainable and as the saying goes, ‘If something can’t continue it won’t’. The essential problem is that the US government, as with other western governments, has made spending commitments its tax base cannot support. And a promise that can’t be kept won’t be kept. Drastic change will come to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, not because of ‘evil’ or ‘heartless’ Republicans, but because of math, because there isn’t the money to pay for them.

The desperately sad truth is that Uncle Sam won’t keep his current promise to pay pensions, pay for medical care for the poor or the elderly at a given level because he won’t be able to. This will amount to defaulting on elderly and sick Americans, the only question is whether it happens through some entitlement reform (whether the Democrats want it or not) or through meeting these commitments with devalued dollars (over to you Janet Yellen). Either way, if ‘default’ means a repudiation of a promise of payment this will be America’s default. The US government has a choice about ‘default’ now, it won’t in the future.


[1] The Telegraph, 8 October 2013.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre

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