The U.S. Is Not Drowning In Debt

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U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), left, and U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) during a debt-ceiling news conference at the U.S. Capitol.

In case you haven’t noticed, Washington is currently consumed in an acrimonious debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. There is no agreement about whether to do so or how, but both parties appear to accept the logic that the United States is suffering from an unacceptably high level of government debt and that further debt will doom the U.S. to generations of decline. Judging by polling data, large swaths of the country agree. Nonetheless, that consensus is wrong.

The Republicans have generally been most vocal on this score. Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader and a major player in the negotiations, has said,

“The government is a fiscal train wreck. It is over $14 trillion in debt and borrows nearly 40 cents of every dollar that it spends. Before us lie two divergent paths: one defined by crushing debt, slow growth and diminished opportunity; and one defined by achievement, innovation and American leadership. We stand at a crossroads. If we are to leave our children a nation that offers everyone a fair shot at earning their success, we must take the later path… House Republicans have taken an honest, responsible approach to confront the debt crisis facing our nation.”

Yet even President Obama believes further debt is untenable and has pledged to cut spending by trillions of dollars in the coming years.

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What neither side seems to recognize — or at least acknowledge — is that what matters about the debt isn’t the dollar amount per se, but how much it costs us to service it. And by that measure, the debt isn’t nearly as big a problem as it’s being made out to be.

Yes, the federal debt has grown by nearly $3 trillion dollars in the past three years. And yes, the dollar amount of that debt is quite large (in excess of $14 trillion and headed toward $15 trillion should the ceiling be raised). But large numbers are not the problem. The U.S. has a large economy (slightly larger than that debt number). And, crucially, we have very low interest rates.

Because of those low rates, the amount the U.S. government pays to service its debt is, relative to the size of the economy, less than it was paying throughout the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s and for most of the last decade. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that net interest on the debt (which is what the government pays to service it) would be $225 billion for fiscal year 2011. The latest figures put that a bit higher, so let’s call it $250 billion. That’s about 1.6% of American output, which is lower than at any point since the 1970s — except for 2003 through 2005, when it was closer to 1.4%.

Under Ronald Reagan, the first George Bush, and Bill Clinton, payments on federal debt often got above 3% of GDP. Under Bush the second, payments were about where they are now. Yet suddenly, we are in a near collective hysteria.

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If you point all this out, the response you typically get is that today’s interest rates are artificially and atypically low — and that when they skyrocket, that debt burden will become much more painful. Well, yes, but rates don’t skyrocket unless there is a collapse of market confidence. Rates may rise, and that will force hard choices in future spending or trigger the need for new sources of revenue. But only crisis triggers dramatic rate swings, and the only thing that will create that crisis is brinksmanship over the debt ceiling or levels of debt that are substantially higher than they are now.

I’m not saying that the money we’ve borrowed recently has been well spent. One could persuasively argue that the government has done a terrible job of using debt to spur economic activity. But that has nothing to do with whether the debt is itself harming the country.

This view of debt isn’t popular. But the numbers aren’t debatable and indicate that by historical standards there is no debt emergency except for the one we are making.

Our diminishing competitiveness and ability to invest in the future – those are real crises, and ones that the debt ceiling debate will do nothing to solve.

Correction: In an earlier version, Eric Cantor was described as the House Whip. He is the House Majority Leader.