"There's no free ride in this carnival world." — from "Carnival World," as performed by Jimmy Buffett
Remember when we used to be concerned about the national debt? Back then folks were only arguing about single-digit trillions. The current amount? You don't want to know. OK, it's more than $21 trillion. And counting.
It's scary. If you don't believe me, go to usdebtclock.org and watch how fast we add $100,000 to the national debt. It happens in less time than it's taken you to read this far. Seriously.
Some economists say that this level of debt, fueled by annual large deficits, isn’t all bad. A government with a fiat currency (one where it can always print money and inject it into the economy) does not necessarily need to balance its annual budget in the way you and I do in our personal households. For us to have money, we must generate it through jobs, investments or the sale of businesses or real estate. The government can just crank up the printer. So granted, comparing Congressional spending to our household spending is like comparing apples to oranges.
The reason a stable country like the United States can borrow money so easily is because, in some form or other, we can always repay what we owe. If we really wanted to, we could simply print enough money to pay off all our debt tomorrow. But we choose to carry the debt instead, because printing that much money would devalue our currency significantly and likely leading to hyperinflation.
So until the United States simply can’t pay off its debt without having to run our money printing machines overtime, we should be able to borrow money at relatively low rates for the foreseeable future. But there certainly must reach a point where a country’s debts start to look suspect, right? Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, national debt experts, cite 90 percent debt-to-GDP as the level at which debt starts to erode growth. We’ve recently passed that mark.
Even so, some are not overly concerned about the national debt. At every new trillion dollar mark people were lamenting the end of the republic under the crushing debt load. Japan is the most indebted developed economy in the world, yet borrows at rates lower than we do. We doubled the debt during the Great Recession while attempting to revive the economy. During that crisis, practical choices regarding adding to the debt were few and far between.
Interest payments, though, are a concern. In 10 years, interest on the national debt is expected to reach almost a trillion dollars annually. That would make it almost 15 percent of the federal budget. Anyone who has ever paid off a large credit card debt will tell you, that's an untenable situation.
Margaret R. McDowell, ChFC, AIF, author of the syndicated economic column "Arbor Outlook," is the founder of Arbor Wealth Management, LLC, (850-608-6121 — www.arborwealth.net), a “fee-only” registered investment advisory firm located near Sandestin.