The US national debt recently topped $21 trillion. Obama added $7,917 trillion to the pile. In February, President Trump signed a moratorium on the federal debt limit for the next year, giving the government unlimited borrowing power.
Both political parties are pointing fingers at each other. But most overlook the stocks and flows of this figure which are far more critical. The stock is the present debt figure, and flow is how the number may change in the future. As an example, a mortgage may be a $100,000 debt, but that is not the monthly payment amount. When it comes to national debt, it’s the flow that matters.
Creditors will lend more readily to a nation heavily in debt than to one with less debt but large deficit spending. Japan, in the former category, is heavily in debt but has never defaulted on its massive debt pile, while Argentina, with its volatile deficit spending habits, has been in default six times.
While the US has amassed record debt, its GDP has also grown steadily. The national debt to GDP ratio has remained relatively unchanged since 2011.
Of course, where there is debt, there are interest payments. Without changes in current fiscal policies, US interest payments alone could comprise 3.6 percent of the entire economy by 2018. In 2017, interest payments were 1.4 percent of GDP. That amount could very well more than double.
Recent tax cuts will expire in 2025, and the spending cap has recently been extended. The call for fiscal restraint is overshadowed with an increasing demand for increased federal spending for benefits to seniors, veterans, and other entitlement programs.
If the recent tax cuts and increased spending are extended indefinitely, the interest on the debt could grow to 14 percent of US spending by 2018. Deficit spending is likely to be $1 trillion by 2019 and will only increase from there.
Despite bi-partisan finger pointing, it is unlikely that either party is overly worried about increasing the national debt. With all economic signs indicating higher inflation in the near future, the resultant higher tax revenues and consumer prices will devalue the actual debt amount as the dollar decreases in value. That means the real value of the debt will be less than it is now. That’s the “flow” effect of dealing with government spending.
So far, it seems to be working. But how long can increased deficit spending be maintained? That’s anyone’s guess. But it’s unlikely that anyone is betting on the government. When debt is merely a number, it can and will be manipulated with ease. And Plato’s metaphorical Ship of State may stay afloat a bit longer.