Posts tagged with: United States public debt

“Despite the mounting cost and swelling debt,” notes Laura Prejean in this week’s Acton Commentary, “America’s demand for education, particularly higher education, has not decreased, defying typical market expectations.”

This is what economists call inelastic demand, when people continue to buy a good or service regardless of an increase in prices. Though the post-recession job market is still difficult, growing student debt ought not to lead us to forget the dignity — and responsibility — of each individual student. When prices for goods and services rise, consumers often make sacrifices and adjust their spending. For example, as gas prices rise, families use carpooling or more efficient routes to and from the grocery store. But what are students sacrificing when they join the immovable market for education? Are they considering less costly options with lower tuition, or do they unthinkingly take out student loans, falling into serious debt as they enter their twenties?

The full text of the essay can be found here. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.

636_debt_ceiling_0What is the debt limit or debt ceiling?

In most years the federal government brings in less revenue than it spends. To cover this difference, the Treasury Department has to issue government bonds which increases the national debt. The debt limit is legislative restriction on the total amount of national debt the Treasury is authorized to borrow to meet its existing legal obligations.

What is the current debt limit?

The current statutory limit on total debt issued by the Treasury is just under $16.7 trillion.

Shouldn’t we want Congress to refuses to raise the debt ceiling since it will lower our national debt?

The debt ceiling does not lower the national debt. The legal obligation to pay the debt has already been incurred by the government so the money is already owed. Refusing to raise the debt ceiling merely prevents the Treasury Department from borrowing money to pay the government’s bills.

When will the government run out of money to pay its bills?

The current estimate is October 17, 2013.

What happens when the government doesn’t have money to pay its bills?

At some point everyone has heard an idea being discussed in Washington, D.C. and thought or said, “That’s insane.” Americans generally recognize there is, more often than not, something not quite right about inside-the-Beltway thinking. But to those who have never lived or worked in the D.C. area, let me tell you: You don’t know the half of it.

Think of your craziest uncle, the one who when you visit for Thanksgiving has some pet theory about how to fix the economy. Now imagine that intelligent, highly educated people heard your crazy uncle’s idea and took it seriously. Now also try to imagine that the idea was taken seriously enough that it was being discussed in the business section of a major newspaper’s website. That is the culture that is D.C.

For example, today the Washington Post’s Wonkblog has a story about the “platinum coin option”, a method for President Obama to get around the debt ceiling:

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Do Less with Less: What the History of Federal Debt and Tax Leverage Teaches,” I reflect on how the federal government has lived beyond its means for decades. This reality is especially important to recognize as we approach Tax Day this year as well as in the context of debates about how to address the public debt crisis.

There are many who think we need to raise taxes in order to close the historic levels of deficit spending. In theory I would consider raising taxes as a viable option, or at least preferable to continued deficit spending, since it would at least make the real cost of government more visible. Roughly 40% of what the government spent last year was beyond what it took in.

But without structural connections between increased taxes and balancing the budget, there’s nothing at all to give us hope that the government wouldn’t simply continue to leverage the greater revenue into greater deficit spending. In this vein I note the conclusions recently updated by Richard Vedder and Stephen Moore, that “over the entire post World War II era through 2009 each dollar of new tax revenue was associated with $1.17 of new spending. Politicians spend the money as fast as it comes in—and a little bit more.”

Calvin College philosophy professor James K. A. Smith doesn’t take this reality into account, I don’t think, when he recently argued that the current situation calls for raising taxes, both on the rich and the middle-class. Thus, he writes,

But only a lazy, unimaginative take on this would assume that “low taxes” is a given. So sure, one strategy to reduce debt would be to slash spending, which inevitably happens on the backs of the poor and vulnerable, particularly women and children.

The alternative to such an unattractive option as Smith sees it is to raise taxes, particularly on the rich. Smith thus points to the idea that America needs to adopt a “graduated tax like most other North American countries.”

The fact is, though, that the US already has a progressive tax system, and indeed places a much higher relative burden on the top decile of household incomes than other developed nations.

One of the next big fights will be over raising the debt ceiling, as Smith points out. Perhaps we can link balanced budgets with increases on the debt ceiling (something more feasible than passing a balanced budget amendment). The idea would be that we only increase the debt ceiling on the condition balancing the annual budget, and that we only think about raising taxes to balance that budget if we actually commit to balancing it.

Simply raising taxes won’t do anything but give the federal government more money to leverage into higher levels of deficit spending.

Last night Gideon Strauss of the Center for Public Justice was generous enough to join us for a public discussion of the recently-released document, “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal for the American Debt Crisis.” This document has occasioned a good deal of reflection here at the PowerBlog, and Gideon took the time to engage this reflection, introducing the context of the Call and answering questions about it. Gideon got to chide me for not signing the document and I got to elaborate a bit on why I have chosen not to affix my imprimatur.

We recorded the event and hope to have the discussion, including some lively Q&A from the audience, up on the site early next week. Meanwhile, this week’s edition of Capital Commentary features a series of short reflections on the Call, from both signers and non-signers. My summary statement is included:

NO: While I praise the Call for its effort to bring the moral aspects of the public debt crisis facing America to broader attention, I have not signed on for reasons of both principle and prudence. With regard to principle, I find no coherent framework contained in or entailed by the Call for judging what the federal government’s primary responsibilities are, whether with respect to national defense, criminal justice, infrastructure, foreign relations, entitlements, or other social programs. The Call moves too easily and quickly from God’s clear concern for the poor to endorse particular federal governmental responsibilities. This gives the clear impression that direct federal assistance to the poor is somehow divinely mandated, an impression that does not do justice to the responsibilities of other social institutions, particularly the church. On the prudential level the Call does not make the case strongly enough that various entitlement programs are the core of the budget dilemma, and signers of the document are construing it in ways that are mutually exclusive. We are in a situation where difficult choices need to be made about governmental spending, and the Call does not provide a principled or prudentially helpful framework for making these tough decisions.

—Jordan J. Ballor is a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty

Blog author: jcouretas
Thursday, March 10, 2011

A new commentary from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg. Sign up here to get the latest opinion pieces delivered to your email inbox on Wednesday with the free weekly Acton News & Commentary.

Deficit Denial, American-Style

By Samuel Gregg

Until recently it was thought the primary message of the 2010 Congressional election was that Americans were fed up with successive governments’ willingness to run up deficit-after-deficit and their associated refusal to seriously restrain public spending.

If, however, the results of a much-discussed Wall St Journal-NBC News poll released on March 2 indicate what Americans really think about fiscal issues, then much of the country is clearly in denial – i.e., refusing to acknowledge truth – about what America needs to do if it doesn’t want to go the way of many Western European nations.

While the poll reveals considerable concern about government debt, it also underscores how unwilling many Americans are to reduce those welfare programs that, in the long-term, are central to the deficit-problem.

Here are the raw facts. America’s federal social security program has become the largest government pension scheme in the world in terms of sheer dollars. It is also by far the federal budget’s single greatest expenditure item.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, “human services” ― Social Security; Medicare; Health-expenditures; Education, Training, Employment, and Social Services; Veterans benefits; and the euphemistically-named “Income Security” (i.e., unemployment-benefits) ― were consuming 4 percent of America’s GDP in 1949. By 1976, this figure had increased to 11.7 percent. In 2009, it was consuming 15.3 percent of GDP.

During the same period, human services began consuming a steadily-increasing size of federal government expenditures. In 1967, human services spending was 32.6 percent of the federal budget. By 2009, this figure had increased to 61.3 percent. It is predicted to rise to 67 percent by 2016. In 2010, 75 percent of human services spending was on Social Security, Medicare, and Income Security ― in short, the core welfare state.

These disturbing numbers make it clear any serious federal deficit reduction must involve spending-cuts to federal welfare programs. That doesn’t mean other areas of government-spending should be immune from cuts. But the deficit simply can’t be properly addressed without a serious willingness to reduce welfare-expenditures.

And yet despite all the passionate rhetoric from Americans about the need to diminish government-spending, the Wall St Journal-NBC News poll suggests that fewer than 25 percent of Americans favor cutbacks to Social Security or Medicare as deficit-reduction measures. As the Wall St Journal’s own commentators noted: “Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’

Unacceptable? Think about that word. Do large numbers of Americans really believe there is something morally evil about significant reductions to welfare-spending under any circumstances? Since when – apart from Greece and other models of fiscal rectitude – have welfare payments assumed the status of an absolute right subject to no qualification? Have we really gone so far down the path of economic-Europeanization?

Granted, the same poll suggests much larger numbers of Americans are willing to raise the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But is that the best Americans are willing to do?

Spain’s unreconstructed-1960s-lefty Socialist government has just lifted Spain’s retirement-age to 67. Unsurprisingly, that won’t fully kick-in until 2027, long after Spain’s political class and their tame voting constituencies have met their Maker and no longer need to live off their children’s futures. But can Americans who proclaim their attachment to free enterprise and personal responsibility really do no better than left-wing Western Europeans?

Back in 2007, the journalist Robert J. Samuelson summarized the situation perfectly. “Most Americans,” he wrote, “don’t want to admit that they are current or prospective welfare recipients. They prefer to think that they automatically deserve whatever they’ve been promised simply because the promises were made. Americans do not want to pose the basic questions, and their political leaders mirror that reluctance. This makes the welfare state immovable and the budget situation intractable.”

Presidential campaigns are invariably accompanied by a great deal of posturing. It would be helpful, however, if some serious candidates for the nation’s highest office in 2012 – Republican or Democrat – would use their moment in the spotlight to educate Americans about what’s at stake.

One former American vice-president once reportedly insisted, “Deficits don’t matter.” Unfortunately, there is mounting proof he was wrong. After examining data on 44 countries over approximately 200 years, two economists recently found evidence suggesting that developed nations with gross public debt levels exceeding 90 percent of GDP (i.e., America) find that their medium-growth rates fall by one percent, while average growth declines by an even greater proportion.

That’s worrying because while deficit-cutting matters, wealth-creation matters even more if we are to dig ourselves out of our fiscal hole. America now seriously risks seeing its burgeoning welfare costs suffocating the productive sector of the economy that makes social welfare possible in the first place.

Incidentally, it won’t be the rich who suffer. It will be the poor. In their laudable concern for the weakest among us, Americans ought to remember that and start matching political rhetoric with consistent fiscal action.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including On Ordered Liberty, his prize-winning The Commercial Society, and Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy.

Last week’s issuance of “A Call for Intergenerational Justice: A Christian Proposal on the American Debt Crisis” has occasioned a good bit of discussion on the topic, both here at the PowerBlog and around various other blogs and social media sites.

It has been interesting to see the reaction that my comments about the Call have generated. Many have said that I simply misunderstood or misread the document. I have taken the time to reread the document and do some reassessment of the entire debate. Unfortunately this has raised more questions than answers for me thus far.

Gideon Strauss, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, has kindly offered to help us sort out some of these concerns. He’s in Grand Rapids later this week and has generously agreed to a public discussion in an open mic, informal setting we’re calling, “Opposing Views: America’s Debt Crisis and ‘A Call for Intergenerational Justice.'”

Details are below and at the Facebook event page. We plan to record the event and make it available for those who aren’t able to join us. But if you are, come along and bring your questions.