Frequently Asked Questions
About the National Debt

The Muser gets mail—not nearly enough, considering the magnitude of this mess—but some folks do ask questions. I also look at questions people ask in Google and other searches.


The Answers :

How does the current financial crisis affect all of this?

So far, and in the short term, not as much as we might have expected. In the long term—maybe not so good.

The debt rose phenomenally fast in the first few months of the crisis, almost 19% in fiscal year 2009 (ended 9/30/09). But the rate of increase dropped to just over 9% in fiscal 2011 (ended 9/30/11). A major reason for the easing is that interest rates throughout the crisis have been extraordinarily low, near zero for some debt.

The net effect for you and me is that the monthly cost of interest on the debt for the average working American, which rose to near $300 per month has now dropped back to pre-crisis levels near $240 per month.

But 9% annual debt increase is still high. For comparison, the highest annual increase of the past fifty years was almost 21% in 1983, and the lowest in that period was near 0% in 2000. It's been over 9% in twenty-one of the past fifty years. And the sheer size of the debt is astounding. The fundamental problem remains: at some point, the cost of borrowing to finance that debt will rise.

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Who do we owe this money to?

We owe it to the people and entities that have bought or received U. S. debt instruments, such as Savings Bonds, Treasury Notes or Treasury Bills.
That includes:

  • Average folks like us
  • Large and small corporations
  • Banks
  • Pension funds
  • Insurance companies
  • Various U. S. government entities such as the Social Security Trust Fund
  • State and local government entities
  • Foreign investors
  • Foreign corporations
  • Foreign governments
  • For more information:
    The Public Debt Online (U. S. Treasury, Department of the Public Debt)
    Treasury Bulletin (U. S. Treasury, Financial Management Service)
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Why do we owe it?

We have this debt because our government (that's you & me) spends more than it collects in taxes. The solutions are:

  • Spend less. That's a lot harder than it sounds; most government spending that could be cut is relatively minor. The things that cannot be cut (or would be extremely difficult to cut) are huge.
  • Tax more. If we can't (or won't) cut spending, it's our only choice.
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Why can't we just cancel the debt?

We can't cancel it (default) because real people would be hurt—lots of real people, very badly hurt.

  • Some people say, "It's not really a debt, because we owe it to ourselves." It would be closer to the truth to say we owe it to each other—and it isn't owed equally to all Americans.
  • Defaulting on the debt would do great damage to many pension funds, life insurance companies, banks, state, county and municipal governments, and foreign governments.
  • When you—or your parents—or your grandparents are ready to retire, and cash in life insurance policies or pension funds, the money must be there. In fact that happens every day. But we don't have the money to pay what's owed, so we borrow more, further adding to the debt.
  • A huge amount of the debt is owed to the Social Security Trust Fund. When, in a few years, that fund goes from positive to negative cash flow, the money has to be available. If it hasn't been repaid to the fund at that time, it will have to be raised through additional borrowing, or additional taxation.
  • Internationally, the consequences of a default are hard to imagine. World trade as we know it is dependent on stable financial structures and international trust. The U.S. economy is an immense part of the world's financial structure. The world may not trust us politically, but if they couldn't trust us financially, the impact on the world economy, and on our own, would surely be catastrophic.
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Why should I have to pay for incompetent government spending, generations ago?

We have to pay the government's debt, because the government is us.

  • Most of the past spending was done for us—it really was.
  • We benefited from the low taxation that left money in our pockets instead of paying for our government's expenses as we went along.
  • Most of that debt was not incurred generations ago. The biggest chunks were incurred as a result of tax cuts in the early 1980s, and in the early 2000s—and the recent crisis expenditures.
  • The consequences of default are unthinkable. Our economy, and the world economy would be severely damaged, perhaps destroyed.
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If my car, house and credit cards are all paid off, do I still owe my share of the national debt?

Yep, you're still on the hook.

  • The national debt has nothing to do with personal debt.
  • The national debt is the debt of our government.
  • Whether you have no debt or are in bankruptcy, you're still responsible for your share of the national debt.
  • Look at the Numbers at a Glance page to see your current share. You pay your share of the interest every month with your income taxes, and in higher prices for everything you buy—higher because of corporate taxes.
  • We have the debt because for decades we've been paying less in taxes than the government spends. It's that simple. Taxes are too low AND spending too high. Both—Not one or the other.
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What kind of debt is this, exactly?

The instruments of the debt are things like Savings Bonds, Treasury Notes or Treasury Bills.

Why does the government keep borrowing, when they know they can't pay it back?

We have to borrow, every month.

  • Every day, people and institutions cash in government securities. They must be paid. Since we haven't had a surplus since 2001, we have no money to pay them. The only way we can pay them is to borrow more, by selling more securities.
  • We're spending more than ever before, for military incursions, for increasingly expensive health care, and for interest on the debt. Our taxes aren't high enough to finance that spending, so we must borrow.
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Why is our government pouring money into other countries as aid?

They're really not.
There are several variations on this question, targeting spending on such things as foreign aid, welfare, or congressional salaries. Everyone has a government expenditure he or she loves to hate. The problem is that most of those expenditures are so small that even their elimination would have no significant impact on the deficit.

  • Put on a personal level, reducing such expenditures as congressional salaries would save each working American a few cents or a few dollars per year. And foreign aid, including military aid, costs you personally considerably less than a dollar a day.
  • There are really only three expenditures that have great impact on the budget; they are health care, defense spending and interest on the debt.
  • Interest is a single item; the others are categories. Interest on the debt is the biggest single item in the federal budget. If we had no debt, and therefore no interest, our deficits would be easily manageable in the short term. In the late nineties, interest on the debt actually accounted for the entire deficit. The only way we can reduce interest is to reduce the debt.
  • Our expenditures for health care are immense, including active and retired military and their dependents, active and retired civilian government employees and their dependents, and Medicare. None of the plans that have been presented on the main political stage in recent years even pretend to reduce expenditures for health care—they only nibble around the edges of the problem, if that.
  • It's pretty hard to talk about defense reductions in the midst of major military incursions.
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The Muser says debt interest is our biggest expense—other sites say it's third—what's up?

  • Interest on the debt is a single item, with a single function.
  • Things like the Department of Defense, or Health and Human Services are entire departments, with many large expenditures. But none of their single items are even close to the amount we pay in interest
  • Things like health care spending are large categories of spending that spread over several departments of the government. Interest is still bigger.
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How can we get out of this mess?

The solutions are:

  • Spend less. That's a lot harder than it sounds; most government spending that could be cut is relatively minor. The things that cannot be cut (or would be extremely difficult to cut) are huge.
  • Tax more. If we can't—or won't—cut spending, it's our only choice.
  • Realistically, we have to do both. During the five fiscal years 2003-2007, the deficit averaged 12.3% of spending.* I can't conceive that growth in the economy is going to amount to 12.3% anytime soon. I can't imagine that we can reduce actual spending by 12.3%. So taxation has to be a part of this.
    * The high during this period was 18%, the low 6%. The January 2008 forecast for 2008 was 8%, but that didn't include the costs of the economic relief package. Revenue could also drop more than forecast due to recession. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has a commentary on this.
  • If we are really ready to sacrifice significant spending programs, perhaps we could cut overall spending by as much as 8% or 9%. But think what that means! The average increase in spending over the past 5 years has been almost 5%. If inflation in the next few years averages 3%, and we stop the increases in spending, and we reduce spending by a real 8%, that totals 16%!! What do you think? Is that 8% reduction realistic? Nah, 1% or 2% is more realistic.
  • So we have to increase taxes—we have no choice. Won't that hurt our economy? Probably not. And reducing the amount of GDP that's diverted to debt interest will surely help.
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How much will this cost me?

  • The answer is complicated, and at best is a guess.
  • It depends on whether we pay off the debt quickly or slowly, and how much we can reduce expenditures. We really can't reduce spending very much. (See the question above.)
  • If we pay the debt off quickly, the initial monthly cost is higher, but the total cost of the payoff is lower.
  • For a fifteen-year payoff, your monthly tax increase is likely to be about $200, for the full fifteen years, and the total cost will be about $81,000.
  • For a thirty-year payoff, your monthly tax increase is likely to be about $35, for the full thirty years, and the total cost will be over $100,000.
  • These figures are bald-faced guesses, and make sweeping assumptions,including:
    1. That you will be a taxpayer for the full fifteen and/or thirty-year periods.
    2. That you have average earnings.
    3. That some of the debt payoff will be accomplished through spending cuts.
    4. That interest rates stay approximately as they are.
    5. That health care spending is contained soon.
    6. That the Social Security trust fund is made healthy—soon. (see the Social Security question below.)
    7. That we don't have any devastating economic surprises during the fifteen or thirty years.
  • Significant cuts in military spending could brighten this picture dramatically.
  • Significant increases in interest rates or health care costs could darken this picture dramatically.
  • Realistically, we probably won't pay off the debt completely; we will pay it down until it becomes manageable, both in the long term and the short term. That will reduce your short term costs, and increase your long term costs, compared to the above figures.
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Won't more tax cuts stimulate the economy enough to reduce the deficit?

The short answer is: NO!

  • The only tax cut I know of that ever actually increased revenues was in the early 1960s. The situation then was vastly different from now. The highest tax rate in the fifties was actually over 90%. The early sixties tax cuts restructured taxation in fundamental ways, and did indeed stimulate the economy. We were also in the full bloom of post-war recovery. And the tax cut wasn't as big as it sounded, either. Very little income had ever actually been taxed at those enormous rates because most large incomes were well sheltered from extreme taxation.
  • The tax cuts of the 1980s and the early 2000s created huge increases in the deficits and the debt.
  • There is no room for significant tax cuts now, because even short term deficit increases could be deadly.
  • There's another problem with this question as it's asked: it talks of reducing the deficit. Deficit reduction isn't what we need; that only slows the disaster. We must eliminate the deficit. Only when we replace the deficit with surplus, can we begin to reduce the debt. Only debt reduction will reduce the tremendous cost of interest we are paying.
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Won't tax increases hurt the economy?

  • Probably not.
  • I've changed my answer here. I no longer believe that tax rates have much impact on growth. The U.S. economy has grown steadily since World War II, with the exception of a number of recessions. Those recessions, except for the current one, have been minor compared to the overall growth. During that time, we've had top tax rates as high as 92% and as low as 28%. I've searched for any convincing statistical connection between the recessions and changes in top tax rates. There is simply no significant correlation over that time. It appears that Americans work hard, invest capital and make money whether taxes are high or low.
  • Would the economy be helped by elimination of the $250 or so that each working American is paying for National Debt interest? Of course it would—I can't imagine a cogent argument otherwise.
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What happens if nothing changes?

This answer isn't as simple as it might seem.

How does Social Security fit into all of this?

It's a little complicated, and in some ways, it's disconnected from the debt and deficit issues. In other ways, it's very connected

  • At the moment, Social Security is revenue positive. We collect more than we pay out. That is projected to continue until about 2017. Before Social Security becomes revenue negative, we have to adjust something, which won't be terribly difficult. We'll probably extend the retirement age modestly for new retirees, and possibly increase Social Securiey taxes slightly.
  • The national debt connection is that one of the major holders of the national debt is the Social Security trust fund. If Social Security becomes revenue negative, it will have to start cashing in its treasury instruments to make benefit payments. Well before that, Social Security surpluses will dwindle to the point where the Social Security system will be buying very little of the debt. These factors mean that we'll have to sell greater amounts of the debt in the private financial market, which is likely to drive interest rates higher.
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Why do interest rates fluctuate so wildy?

OK, this is a bit complicated.

If you look every month at the interest paid on the debt, you'll see that it is much higher in some months than in others, even though the size of the debt changed very little. The explanation is in the way the Treasury Department sells and redeems securities. They sell securities several times every month. Some securities mature in as little as four weeks, others in as long as thirty years Every month, some securities mature and are redeemed. Some of those will have been sold in the previous month, but some were sold thirty years ago.

Study Table PDO-1, Maturity Schedules of Interest bearing Securities, which is linked from the Treasury Bulletin website. It lists all the market offerings of securities that are still outstanding, and their issue dates and interest rates —all sorted by the dates they mature. Notice that the interest rates on individual lots of securities can be as low as 1.5%, and as high as 14%. Refer also to the Monthly Interest Rate Certification. It shows the interest rates Treasury has recently paid, and expects to pay in the immediate future, on new security offerings. In September '05, these rates ranged from 3.5% to 4.625%.

Each month, some old securities mature, and new securities are sold. If we redeem a lot of old 13% and 14% securities, we replace them with 3.5% and 4.5% securities, and our interest payments go down. On the other hand, if we redeem a bunch of 1.5% and 2% securities, replacing those at the current rates, our interest payments rise.

As obscure as this seems, it is actually extremely important. The chief reason that our deficit fell so dramatically in the late '90s is that we replaced a lot of old, very high-interest debt from the '70s and early '80s, with much lower interest debt. Even though the amount of debt was still increasing, the overall interest payments were reduced. We're still retiring some of that high-interest debt, but there's a lot less of it than there once was. When it's gone, our interest payments will begin to rise, reflecting the rising interest we are paying on new debt. When that happens, the deficit will rise even faster than it has been rising.

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