August 25, 2009
You may have seen the Paul Krugman post “How Big is $9 Trillion” in which he attempts to defend the Obama administration’s recent announcement that they expect that their policies will increase the national debt by $9 trillion. His tack is to “explain” that $9 trillion isn’t really all that much when you understand it in context.
it’s being treated as an inconceivable sum, far beyond anything that could possibly be handled. And it isn’t.
What you have to bear in mind is that the economy — and hence the federal tax base — is enormous, too. Right now GDP is around $14 trillion. If economic growth averages 2.5% a year, which has been the norm, and inflation is 2% a year, which is the target (and which the bond market seems to believe), GDP will be around $22 trillion a decade from now. So we’re talking about adding debt that’s equal to around 40% of GDP.
Right now, federal debt is about 50% of GDP. So even if we do run these deficits, federal debt as a share of GDP will be substantially less than it was at the end of World War II.
I defer to Paul Krugman on a lot of things because he is transparently smarter than I am. But it is precisely because of this fact that I know he is conscious of the obvious reasons his analysis is hogwash.
First of all, the national debt in WWII was initiated by an existential threat to the very continuation of our country. Mr. Krugman does not make even attempt to make the case that we have a similar crisis that justifies this kind of debt.
Second, implicit in his observation is the concept that since we did fine after WWII, we’ll do fine now. But the years after WWII saw drastic reductions in the inflation-adjusted debt driven by drastic reductions in spending. Mr. Krugman points to no similar possibility in the post-Obama world.
Third, we have something now that we didn’t have in the 1940’s. Back in the 1945, at the height of the spending that saw our national debt rise so dramatically, entitlement spending and interest on the national debt made up a meager 5% of our total budget.
By the end of President Obama’s term (if he runs two terms) we’ll be looking at a federal budget that is 70% mandatory spending. (I assume for the purposes of consistency that mandatory spending includes interest on the national debt because we don’t really have a choice in not paying it.)
Here’s a quick visual of the difference in the budgets in 1945 and 2016. (Ugly, because I did it fast… I’m on vacation.)
If you look at the 1945 budget with the single question “How are we going to reduce our debt?” you can identify the major problem. It’s the defense budget, which is almost 90% of the budget. Interestingly, reducing the defense budget is exactly what we did in order to reduce the debt, cutting it over 80% in 3 years (it helped that we won the war).
As a contrast, President Obama’s solution to reducing overall spending is… well, I don’t think he really has a plan. His projected budget in 2016 has reduced the defense budget as a percentage of the overall budget from 20% to 14%, but military spending isn’t what is killing us. The president has no plans to reduce mandatory spending whatsoever. In fact, his only change to entitlement spending is to increase it.
My problem with Mr. Krugman’s “How big is $9 trillion?” is that he is aware of all the problems I pointed out. He didn’t explain how much $9 trillion is; he obfuscated it. By comparing the debt load in the heart of a world-shaking war to a debt load that was accumulated in (relative) peacetime, he has misled his readers to the real significance of the data.
(By the way… if you would like to blame the debt load on the Iraq war, you should know that those costs have raised our debt by 5% of the GDP. Comparing this to WWII, which raised our debt by 70% of the GDP, is a pretty weak argument.)
May 21, 2009
I’ve gotten a number of people asking some permutation of the following question:
“Why don’t you give the national debt as a percentage of the GDP as a whole? Isn’t that more meaningful/relevant?”
My answer the the latter question is “Yes and no.”
The answer is “Yes”… in the sense that if you made $50,000 per year and you had $80,000 in debt, you’re more screwed than if you make $100,000 per year and you have $80,000 in debt.
But the answer is “No” for the purposes of making a visualization for the following reasons.
First, I didn’t frame the debt in that way is because it fundamentally hides some really important things that shouldn’t be hidden. I’ll go ahead and give the game away… I’m in the business of communicating numbers clearly. And using the debt-to-GDP ration feels too much like trying to hide the real meaning of the numbers.
It feels like a car salesman who refuses to talk about the raw numbers of the car you’re buying because when he talks about monthly payments, it’s easier to screw you. Because, really, what’s the difference between $287.87 per month and $359.60? It’s not that much, is it? And if you’re already spending $300, you might as well spend $350, right?
In the same way, talking about the debt in a percentage manner is hiding the true cost. So we increase the debt-to-GDP by 2.2%… big deal, right?
But that 2.2% is the same amount as everyone in the state of Washington makes in a year. Every. Single. Person. Go look at a Google street view of Seattle and try to count how many people live in a high-rise apartment building. Take a stroll down some of the swankier neighborhoods. Look at the obscenely expensive houses that line the bay. Everything every one of those people makes in a year. The more thought you apply to the real meaning of the number, the more you see that, while 2.2% might be an accurate number to describe an increase, it doesn’t even begin to communicate the scope.
That’s the first reason I didn’t use debt-to-GDP… becuase it violates the core principle of what I’m trying to do: give a clear understanding of the scope of the issue. When people use it, it feels like they’re looking around for the best possible way to represent the problem so that it doesn’t feel as big as it is.
Make no mistake, the problem is huge. Huge in a way almost none of us understand because our brains don’t process that kind of huge very well.
There are other problems with framing the issue this way too. One is that comparing the federal debt to the GDP is something of a misnomer because the government doesn’t own the GDP. The GDP is “owned” in part by everyone in the country. And all those people and business have their own debt (mortgages, credit card debt, student loans, business loans).
Quick, off-the-cuff example using very rough numbers: Sam makes $100,000 per year, but he spending $150,000 per year. As if that weren’t bad enough, he is $500,000 in debt already. But he tells himself it’s not a big deal because his kid is in college and that will only last a couple years and, besides, he has a business protecting houses and mowing yards for a living and if you combine everything his clients make in a year, it comes out to be almost $750,000 per year.
So if you look at how much he owes compared to how much his clients make, it’s only about 70%. And if his clients make $1,000,000 next year, he could owe $666,000 and there would be no change whatsoever in his “how-much-I-owe to how-much-my-clients-make” ratio. No problem!
Except that Sam’s clients are probably a little nervous about Sam comparing the truly absurd scope of his debt to the amount of money they make every year. Shouldn’t he be comparing his debt to the money he makes every year?
I could go on at length, and perhaps I’ll make a visualization about this, but right now I’ve got to work the day job.