Tuesday, September 27, 2011

We Could Pay Off The Debt. But Should We?

We could do it. If we wanted to, we could eliminate the deficit with taxes alone. The real question is whether we should.

Debt in perspective
Yes, you've probably heard that we can't. You've probably heard the claim that the deficit is unmanageable. You've probably heard the claim that the debt is some grand, unapproachable amount that we already can't possibly hope to pay off. You've probably heard the claims that our debt is so high there aren't enough assets or income in the country to cover it.

They're flat-out false. The only question is whether they believe what they're saying or they're purposefully lying.

Here are the numbers from the census data, the treasury, the fed, and the standard deficit projection:

  • Number of households in 2010: 118,682,000
  • Mean 2010 household income in 2010 dollars: $67,530
  • 9/23/2011 current debt: $14.7 trillion
  • Projected 2011 deficit: roughly $1.3 trillion
  • Household 2010 net worth: roughly $57 trillion

So take those numbers above and we can see that:
  • Net worth / household: $480,275
  • Federal debt / household: $123,861
  • Net worth after US debt / household: $356,414 (far higher than median net worth)
  • National income / household: $67,530
  • Federal deficit / household: $10,954
  • Net income after deficit: $56,574 (significantly higher than median income)
  • Deficit / income / household: 16.2%

The particular items of interest here are: 
  • $356,414 dollars left over if we were to pay all all federal debt from all household net worth today
  • 16.2% as the mean increase required to eliminate the deficit with tax increases alone

As $356,414 is far above the median net worth, most people would say that's far from broke. There would be lots of problems with actually liquidating private net worth, of course, so that's strictly hypothetical. The fact remains, however, that there is enough household net worth in the US to do it and still have quite a bit of wealth. Just because it isn't something we want to do doesn't mean it couldn't be done.

The 16.2% seems like a massive tax increase. But then consider that we've had higher taxes than that before. It wouldn't be all that bad if such an increase were done in a progressive manner. For the bottom 50% of taxpayers, losing 16.2% more of income would be catastrophic. But together they only make about 12.75% of total AGI, so managing without the bottom 50% isn't so hard. For the top 1% such an increase would be easily survivable and still far below what folks with such incomes would have paid in the 1950s and 60s. Based on the AGI's if we taxed the top 1% an additional 40%, that alone would cover over half the deficit. Just for a rough example, if we were to raise effective tax rates by 40% on the top 1%, 15% on the rest of the top 5%, 10% on the rest of the top 10%, 5% on the rest of the top 25%, and 2% on the rest of the top 50%, that would net us an additional $1.38 trillion. That'd be well more than enough to cover the deficit. Whether we want to do something like that or not, the fact remains that it could be done. If we collectively wanted to, we clearly could close the deficit with tax increases alone.

If you don't believe my numbers, please look them up yourself. If you don't believe these basic calculations, please pull out your calculator or spreadsheet and run them yourself. You'll find the same thing. We could cancel out the deficit if we wanted to. And we could pay off the debt if we really wanted to. That's part of why our debt is an international safe-haven investment at very low interest rates. But there's another side to the story. Do we really want to have no national debt?

2010 Intragovernmental Holdings
Of that $14.7 trillion, $4.6 trillion is intragovernmental holdings. Over $2.6 trillion is held by the Social Security trust fund alone. Social Security needs someplace secure to hold that cash till it's needed. We don't want them gambling it on stocks or volatile commodities like gold or oil. Even if the rest of the world weren't seeing lots of instability, U.S. Treasuries are the only reasonable option. That means our federal govt must borrow at least enough to be able give the Social Security trust fund a safe place to invest. The same holds true for at least most of the rest of intragovernmental holdings, many of which are insurance or retirement accounts. We don't want them anywhere less safe; and anywhere else is less safe.

So far, we've identified roughly $4.6 trillion of debt that we want right where it is. It would be senseless to force ourselves to find alternatives less secure than the full faith and credit of our own government for those holdings.

Holders of debt, Dec 2010
The rest? As of the end of 2010, there was $802 billion in pension funds. Shall we tell all the pensioners their funds have to be less secure because our debt hawks don't want us to have govt debt anymore? There's $517 billion held by state and local govts. Shall we force our other levels of govt to engage in risky speculation? Depository institutions (i.e., banks) hold $323 billion. Didn't we already get burned by letting banks increase their risk? Do we really want to go there? Wouldn't that be exactly the opposite direction from where we've been trying to push the financial industry? Insurance companies hold $244 billion. Guess why they've put it into Treasuries ... because they need the stability in order to keep insuring us without entirely relying on risky sources to back up our claims. Then there's another $2,046 billion held among mutual funds, savings bonds, and other investors. All of whom look to Treasuries for low-risk investments to balance out our riskier investments with some safe, guaranteed income. Shall we deny all our investors -- both wealthy folks and the grandmother nearing retirement -- the opportunity to choose additional investment beyond Social Security that's backed by the full faith and credit of our govt? To stop issuing federal debt would be to say, "No, you may be ready to retire and seeking to move your funds out of risky assets, but we're not going to let you have this guaranteed income option." Do we really want to say that? Seriously?

What's that leave? The foreign portion, under a third of our debt. That's the part we could seriously consider. That's the part we could pay off without forcing our own govt institutions, companies, and individuals to shift all of their investments into riskier options. But what does that part mean to us? Foreign investments aren't invested in our debt because of attractive rates to them. Quite the opposite; they could easily choose any number of investments with higher rates. But those higher rates all come with more risk. We're the place nations stow cash in case everything else fails, safer than burying it. It isn't about making money off us; it's about making sure they've got enough money socked away where it is more certain to be available than any other option. It's about stability. That means we're issuing debt at very low rates, lower than ordinary inflation. After factoring for inflation, all the world is literally paying us to hold their money safely for them. Why should we turn that down instead of using it to improve our infrastructure and lower our domestic cost of doing business?

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