The Stakes 2008

The Size of the Debt

By Gregg Easterbrook

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The announcement that the federal government is planning to pour as much as $700 billion into a bailout of private banking and insurance firms has brought the unpleasant subject of debt back into the news. Debt is an issue that voters don’t normally want to hear about, in part because Congress has been borrowing for bailouts, and everyone wants a bailout. But bailouts based on borrowing mean more debt.

The ballooning debt is an issue of vital importance to the nation’s future. Debt has to be repaid, and a useful rule of thumb is that every dollar borrowed today subtracts two dollars from future growth. Homeowners borrowed, borrowed, borrowed as if tomorrow would never come, and it came. Why should we think the national balance sheet will be any different?

The two presidential candidates are likely to approach debt in very different ways. Before focusing on the candidates, though, let’s take a closer look at the debt monster—a subject that until recently had strangely disappeared from politics and political commentary.

First is the distinction between annual deficits and overall national debt. Even before the latest round of bailouts, the federal deficit was projected to reach a record $482 billion in fiscal 2009. (The true figure is actually $562 billion, but the White House refuses to include war borrowing in its calculations.) Although that $562 billion deficit sounds catastrophic—topping the previous record deficit, in 2004, by nearly $100 billion in real terms—it is not necessarily a killer problem. Because the economy keeps growing, that figure will represent only 3.5 percent of GDP, compared to 6 percent during the mid-1980s. The killer problem is, rather, the national debt—the total amount of government borrowing, plus committed interest costs. Interest causes the national debt to compound, and the national debt is spiraling out of control.

Consider: it took the United States 209 years, from 1789 to 1998, to compile the first $5 trillion in national debt. It has taken just ten years to compile the second $5 trillion. The national debt was $5.7 trillion when George W. Bush took office; currently it is set to rise to $11.3 trillion. Want another shocker number? Just a generation ago, in 1980, the national debt ceiling was $2.3 trillion, stated in today’s dollars; in a single generation, the debt has quintupled.

Even adjusting for inflation, there has been more undisciplined spending and runaway borrowing under George W. Bush as under all previous presidents combined. In both the White House and Congress, the sense of responsibility about the use of public debt has completely collapsed.

For instance, compare the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. Congress and presidents of both parties paid for the Vietnam War by imposing taxes, and so during that conflict the U.S. national debt rose by just $9 billion in today’s dollars. In contrast, the Iraq War is being paid for entirely by borrowing. So far the war has cost at least $850 billion, every penny of which has been passed along to those too young to vote. And the spendthrift spree is far from finished. U.S. forces will be in Iraq for at least two more years, and soon the government will also need to cover large disability payments for wounded soldiers, plus pensions and educational costs. Most estimates anticipate that the Iraq War will ultimately add $2 trillion to $3 trillion to the national debt.

Although much of the debt liability was incurred when Republicans controlled all three branches of government, undisciplined, irresponsible borrowing in Washington has become the norm for both parties. Even before the mortgage rescue bill, the federal government committed up to $35 billion in borrowing to bail out Bear Sterns, about $160 billion for economic stimulus checks, and $288 billion in the latest farm bill. The new farm bill spends more than twice the inflation-adjusted amount of the largest previous farm bill, even though agricultural prices are at record highs, most farms are now quite profitable, and lower, not higher, subsidies would seem to be called for. No wonder so many Americans signed gimmicky mortgages they couldn’t afford. They were simply following Washington’s example—borrow irreponsibly, and let someone else pick up the tab later.

The recent runaway increase in the national debt has mainly come at a time when the economy was strong, the sort of time when debt should be retired. Today the economy is weak. But most of the borrowing is not a response to the economy’s weakness. The borrowing is the cause of the weakness. An out-of-control runup in the national debt drives down the value of the dollar, which in turn drives up oil prices. A weak dollar and high oil prices are the two leading economic problems of the moment, and both have resulted from undisciplined borrowing. Every time you borrow against your house, you make the house worth less. (To you, at least.) George W. Bush, with help from a feckless Congress, has made the nation worth less. (To us, at least—perhaps not to buyers from the Persian Gulf states.) Because the nation is worth less, the economy sputters.

Now, the election. If history is any guide, McCain would have trouble doing much about the national debt, because he would have to admit that the presidents of his party have been the worst villains. According to figures from George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, the national debt has seen an average annual increase of $405 billion under Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush, compared to $156 billion under Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (These figures are in absolute, not inflation-adjusted, dollars, and do not include the projected $700 million Wall Street bailout.) Furthermore, no matter how much the economy grows, tackling the debt would require at least some higher taxes on the affluent, setting McCain on a collision course with the power brokers of the GOP. The odds of McCain confronting the Republican establishment about taxes are not good.

Barack Obama, by contrast, has history on his side. Although Democrats on Capitol Hill have enabled George W. Bush’s irresponsible borrowing, recent Democratic presidents have been stricter than recent Republican presidents about fiscal responsibility, so debt is an issue where Obama’s party holds the high ground. And he has started to make the case for prudence to the public. Speaking with Rick Warren at Saddleback Church, he said, "If we believe in good schools, if we believe in good roads, if we want to make sure that kids can go to college, we don’t want to leave a mountain of debt for the next generation. Then we’ve got to pay for these things, they don’t come for free, and it is irresponsible [to act as if they come for free] … I believe it is irresponsible intergenerationally for us to invest or for us to spend $10 billion a month on a war and not have a way of paying for it."

With that history in mind, then, what are the candidates promising to do? Sadly, reining in the debt does not feature prominently in either man’s rhetoric. McCain has pledged $200 billion in new annual tax breaks. He has also promised to slash spending, without naming any specific cuts—the oldest trick in the politician’s playbook. Obama has promised to cut middle-class taxes, but also to raise the capital gains tax rate and impose Social Security taxes on income above $250,000. (Social Security taxes currently stop at about $102,000.) According to the nonpartisan Center for Tax Policy, neither candidate’s campaign proposals would reduce the debt. But CTP estimated that McCain’s proposals would add another $1 trillion in debt, while Obama’s would add a mere $150 billion.

We can, however, safely assume that all of the candidates’ policies and white papers may be thrown out the window when the next president takes office and assesses the state of the nation’s purse. Perhaps McCain will return to his maverick ways and become a debt hawk, admonishing Republicans for their willingness to spend, spend, spend and hand the bill to our children. But that’s a long shot at best.

There seems to be a greater likelihood that Obama will speak honestly to the nation about the debt. The image of a conventional liberal rolling up his sleeves to reduce the debt has a "Nixon goes to China" feel about it. Obama is a future-focused candidate, and the debt is nothing if not a grave and growing peril to the country’s future.

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Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor to the Washington Monthly, the Atlantic, and the New Republic. His latest book is The Progress Paradox. Julia Pilcer of Johns Hopkins University provided research assistance for this essay.

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