1. That gap between revenue and spending? It's the deficit.
[...] The U.S. government took in about $7,000 in revenue for every man, woman and child in the United States last year. It spent more than $11,000 per person. The gap between those numbers, about $4,000 per person, is the deficit, and it was covered by borrowing money.
Some politicians speak as if high levels of government spending and a large budget deficit are the same thing. This isn't so. You could have a government that spends $11,000 per person - but with taxes to match it - and no deficit. Or you could have a bare-bones government of a libertarian's fantasy that spends only $7,000 per person but that runs a large deficit because it raises only $3,000 per person in taxes. [...]
2. How did we get all this debt? From deficits accumulated over 200 years.
[...] The national debt works out to about $46,000 per American.
That level of debt has been accumulated over two centuries, rising rapidly in times of war and depression, rising slowly most of the time, and occasionally falling in times of prosperity and fiscal restraint.
But even if Congress and the Obama administration agreed to a budget for next year with zero deficit, the national debt would still be with us. It would take massive budget surpluses year after year to eliminate it. No one in public office has offered a plausible plan that would do that.
The good news is that there's really no need to eliminate the debt entirely. Having no debt could be problematic. Government debt, in the form of U.S. Treasury bonds, plays a crucial role in the inner workings of the financial system, offering a what is considered a safe place for investors to put their money.
3. Not all debt is bad. Some debt is good.
[...] If the government borrows money to pay for things that have a long-term payoff, such as a highway between two major cities or education for its citizens, deficit financing can make a lot of sense. When the government borrows money just to pay its year-in, year-out expenses, it's really just a tax increase by another name. [...]
4. The stronger the economy, the less debt we'll have and the more we can handle.
[...] The reality is that economic growth has a massive impact on both the scale of deficits and how sustainable a given debt level might be.
When the economy is stronger - when there is more economic activity, fewer unemployed and higher incomes - income taxes are higher. Simultaneously, there is less need for unemployment insurance, Medicaid and other social welfare programs.
Not only would a stronger economy make the deficit lower - it would broaden the nation’s capacity to handle a large debt. [...]
5. Interest rates matter (a lot).
Here’s a phrase that most Americans have never heard but that will be really, really important over the coming decade: "debt dynamics."
That's the concept that deficits and debt have a built-in feedback loop. So when debt levels rise too high, interest rates can rise, making the debt problem all the more onerous. Debt dynamics are the reason that, even though interest rates are very low now, it is worth worrying about current U.S. debt levels.
A debt level that is completely manageable when interest rates are 3 percent can become burdensome when rates are 6 percent. Every rise in interest rates by a single percentage point increases the annual cost to service that debt by about $140 billion, or $450 for every American.
What that means is that with debt levels high relative to the size of the economy, a country loses control of its own destiny in terms of public finances. If global lenders lose faith that the U.S. government is the safest entity on Earth to lend money to, the fiscal situation would go from being a long-term challenge to a near-term crisis.
There are countries that maintain larger levels of debt than the United States, relative to the size of their economies, such as Japan and Italy. But it creates a certain national vulnerability - to the hard-to-predict whims of financial markets.
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