One Step Closer to Ruin
Today we pause to acknowledge a sad mile marker… another waypoint on the road to the poorhouse…
This week — for the first time in its 244 years — total United States debt exceeds $22 trillion.
The last $2 trillion has piled on since Mr. Trump donned the imperial purple.
The United States required 205 years to ring up its first $1 trillion debt — but only 11 months for its 22nd.
That is, what was previously the work of two centuries… is now the work of 11 months.
Here is progress — of a peculiar and exotic sort.
But large numbers exert a dulling effect on the sober senses… like large bottles of wine.
A $10,000 dinner bill, for example, will freeze your blood.
It will torment you, stagger you, hagride you, kill you — because though extravagant, you can relate to figures in this range.
But a trillion-dollar bill will glaze your eyes.
Not in 100 lifetimes could you hope to satisfy it. A trillion ranges beyond all fathoming, all imagination.
You would laugh it away… and depart the restaurant instructing the owner where he can place his bill.
So let us attempt to reduce the airy abstract to solid concrete…
How to Imagine $1 Trillion
The nonprofit Employment Policies Institute places 1 trillion into this perspective:
Let’s say someone told you to wait for something. If you waited 1,000 seconds, it’d only take about 17 minutes. If you waited 1 million seconds, you’d have to wait about 11.5 days… But if you waited 1 trillion seconds, you’d have to wait 31,688 years.
Returning to our poor example, perhaps you can tell the restaurateur he will have his money in 1 trillion seconds.
Your offer would likely appear very reasonable.
Let us mix the figure some…
Assume for the moment you are placed in command of the printing press. But you are limited to $1 bills.
Being exceptionally energetic, you produce one $1 bill each second of the day, 365 days of the year.
How long would you require to print 1 trillion $1 bills?
Author Bill Bryson:
If you initialed $1 per second, you would make $1,000 every 17 minutes. After 12 days of nonstop effort you would acquire your first $1 million. Thus, it would take you 120 days to accumulate $10 million and 1,200 days — something over three years — to reach $100 million. After 31.7 years you would become a billionaire… But not until after 31,709.8 years would you count your trillionth dollar.
But your sole concern is the national welfare. You therefore consecrate yourself to retiring the national debt.
In that case, you multiply the preceding by 22. Here is what you find:
Writing off today’s $22 trillion debt would require 697,615.6 years of ceaseless labor.
Assume the Almighty grants you your threescore and 10 — 70 years.
In 9,965.9 lifetimes, you would complete the business.
Heaven, indeed, can wait. Fortunately… so must hell.
But you say we conjure a phantom menace.
The United States’ GDP is $20 trillion. Put next to it, a $22 trillion debt is not half so daunting.
But the trend is…
Debt Is Growing Faster Than the Economy
Michael Peterson, CEO of the nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Foundation:
“Reaching this unfortunate milestone so rapidly is the latest sign that our fiscal situation is not only unsustainable but accelerating.”
GDP has increased some 35% since 2008. But the national debt… 122%.
Meantime, average real annual economic growth since 2009 runs to 2.23%.
And the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates GDP growth will limp along at an average 1.9% per annum the next decade.
But it estimates debt is expanding at a 6% annual rate.
Once again… the trend.
But CBO’s growth forecast may be optimistic. It fails to account for possible recession.
The current expansion is the second longest in U.S. history. By July it will become the longest — if the gods are merciful.
How much longer can the economy peg along without a recession?
Permanent Deficits Are the New Religion
In a growing economy, the old Keynesians preach a gospel of fiscal restraint.
It is the time to squirrel away acorns… and save against a season of lean kine.
When recession inevitably arrives, the government can then meet the emergency with a full war chest.
“Countercyclical” policy, academic men term it.
But even the old Keynesian religion has gone behind a cloud.
In its place we find the religion of perpetual deficit.
Analyst John Rubino on the new catechism:
Even Keynesianism, generally the most debt-friendly… school of economic thought, views deficit spending as a cyclical stabilizer. That is, in bad times governments should borrow and spend to keep the economy growing while in good times governments should scale back borrowing — and ideally run surpluses — to keep things from overheating.
But now we seem to have turned that logic on its head, with fiscal stimulus ramping up in the best of times, when unemployment is low, stock prices high and inflation stirring. New… fiscal policy seems to call for continuous and growing deficits pretty much forever.
When recession is finally upon us — depend on it — the spending floodgates will open.
And today’s trillion-dollar deficits will trifle in comparison.
“We get a recession,” affirms analyst Sven Henrich, “and you are looking at $2–3 trillion [annual] deficits.”
A “Tripartisan” Approach to Government Spending
But perhaps we can plug the holes to keep current debt levels even.
It is possible in theory… but impossible in practice.
CBO estimates Congress would have to increase revenues 11% each year… while simultaneously slicing the budget 10%.
Will Congress spend 10% less each year?
As well imagine a circular square… a flying whale… or an honest liar.
Within 10 years, CBO projects federal spending will surge from today’s 20.8% of GDP to 23.0%.
This is of course a bipartisan effort. Rather, it is a tripartisan effort — we the people are as responsible as the politicians we elect.
Meantime, the United States spent $523 billion servicing its debt in fiscal year 2018 — a record.
And CBO projects debt service will rise to $915 billion by 2028 — nearly 25% of the entire budget.
$915 billion roughly approximates last year’s combined Medicare and Medicaid costs.
Rising debt service will likely lower the curtain on the entire show, as rising borrowing costs swamp the economic machinery.
At that point the entire illusion that deficits do not matter will crash upon the rocks of mathematical fact.
As we have written before…
“The divine wrath is slow indeed in vengeance,” said Roman historian Valerius Maximus nearly 2,000 years ago…
“But it makes up for its tardiness by the severity of the punishment.”
The current recovery is nine years old… and counting…
Managing editor, The Daily Reckoning