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U.S. National Debt Tops $33T for First Time
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Posted on Monday, September 18th 2023 by vinni2 | 37 points
https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/18/us/politics/us-national-d...>The fiscal milestone comes as Congress is facing a new spending fight with a government shutdown looming.
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The takeaway from all of this isn't necessarily that we need to cut spending on social programs while maintaining a larger military than the next several nations combined, which is what the deficit hawks referenced in this article want, it's that we should rollback the tax cuts that led the deficits in the first place. We should also be increasing domestic investments that would make us more attractive to outside investors rather than becoming an over-militarized hollowed out shell of a former super-power.
If you treat your domestic economy and workforce like a leveraged buyout target, siphoning every ounce of profit out of it while saddling it with debt, the end result is likely the same as with many leveraged buyouts: collapse.
If everyone paid 100% income tax it would be paid off in 1.5 years. So typically you could increase taxes by 15% and pay it off in 10 years -- assuming, of course, you can keep congress from earmarking their way to political ecstacy.
Another approach is to reduce congressional spending. We subsidize the oil and farming industries heavily -- for reasons. But if you believe that the market is the most efficient use of resources, then ask yourself, why should congress choose the winners? Removing oil and farm subsidies would be ~$50B/year right there.
Also it's worth noting that people typically can buy houses worth 2.5x of their annual income.
Remember, government debt is an asset to the private sector. Money IS debt. The money in your bank account either came from government spending or someone else taking out a loan.
Japan can borrow cheaply and does not have those 'advantages'. So can Germany, France, Canada, etc—often at rates lower than the US:
The govt spends other peoples money. It can do bad things. But it never goes out of businessess. When it spends it poorly as it is often the case, they take more money from people. If they can't, they take it from unborn people. Eventually this builds up a debt.
And then it implodes like you describe
Everyone knows the US needs to roll back the batshit tax advantages it keeps handing out to certain groups that largely already have all the money, although few seems willing to say that in a way that may impact them getting paid.
120% debt to GDP ratio is "the problem"
It's similar to income versus debt for an individual, the more income you have the more debt you can service. At about a third over GDP it's a bit high, but not disastrous.
And no this 33 trillion will never be 'paid back', instead GDP will grow and make the number insignificant (also inflation), a few decades down the road.
Hasn't it topped 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23...32... etc.. for the first time too? What makes 33 special?
I certainly don't like the amount of debt in the U.S.... but this is a low quality headline except for the fact you don't need anything more to the story --- or if you do, they are burying the lead behind the paywall.
It's the first composite number ending in 3?
And, yes, that only makes sense in decimal, but finance wonks aren't to be bothered with such esoterica.
Election season is starting, and someone wants to use this as a talking point.
What I mean is that the US government is mostly in debt to itself, in money it can print. For example, the Social Security Trust Fund buys US bonds to secure its cashflows.
Anyway, I really don't understand if and why the US National Debt matters that much (I'm not saying it doesn't, I just don't get it)
The U.S. can and does make new money to pay debts...basically out of thin air. As a self imposed limit, they agree to pay interest on that debt. Again, yes they can create money to pay that interest, which because of the mechanism they set up, would cost further interest payments.
So what's the real limit?
If you have too many dollars in circulation chasing too few goods, you get inflation.
Therefore, the limit is the the extent to which interest payments on the national debt are sufficient to induce inflation beyong productivity growth.
At least, this is my understanding.
It's the Japan scenario. Take a look at their budget and or spending, and the share going to interest (debt maintenance broadly), over the past 20 years.
The result? US GDP per capita: $80,000. Japan's GDP per capita: $35,000. In the year 2000 Japan's figure was higher than the US figure.
Now, the US will be able to kick the can for quite a while yet, especially if it retains the global reserve currency and can distribute economic damage (debasement) more globally.
The tape to watch is the average rate of interest on the debt and the share of spending going to maintain the debt. Imploding demographics and entitlement growth are gasoline on the fire. For a while you can just keep trying to push the average interest rate lower, so the interest costs don't get out of control as the total sum soars by the decade; that eventually begins to fail, as it did in Japan. You can only drive the interest rate on the debt pile so low and then your last game is to begin aggressively debasing the standard of living of the people, through currency debasement, to reduce the debt problem. And it's thus Japan's standard of living has been hammered over the past two decades. South Korea will shortly (within a few years) surpass Japan in GDP per capita.
Tens of trillions of dollars locked up yielding 0.5% or 1% or 2% per year (now or in the future), is the heat sink. That capital should otherwise be acting to spur economic growth, innovation, invention, economic well-being, social welfare, infrastructure, and so on. Instead it's being locked away yielding zip, in ever greater sums, at ever lower average interest rates. It's an economic heat death process and it will tend to keep going until it eats everything it can (because no political entities dare step in front of it on their watch).
Japan's problem was that it's spending did very little to encourage consumption . It was mostly dedicated to high-cost infrastructure projects and other boondoggles that simply did not lead to more economic activity. 
That intrinsic lack of demand led to insanely low inflation for a long time, so that Yen-denominated debt consistently grows as a share of their Yen-denominated GDP. 
In the US, we've grown debt a considerable amount, but the only time we really increase it as a % of GDP is during recession responses (since our 'normal time' debt usually goes to things like private contractors who grow like stock-market businesses and create durable GDP). 
Anyway, long story short, the US debt is it's own thing and it's very hard to compare to Japan, since Japan went about it in such a different way.
Arguably, it's not. As I mentioned in my other comment , Japan is a huge creditor nation, while the US is the largest debtor one.
We kind of need to keep that lie quiet so the Treasuries market stays liquid (I mean, kind of weird we all know the government openly manipulates the rate of return on the world's most common financial instrument, no?).
It's kind of why we can't min the $1tn coin to fix the debt ceiling. Everyone just agrees it's pretty convenient to ignore the market's weirdness and run with it (because the illusion of a risk free rate is a nice one).
Having some level of debt seems to be good, but at this point, servicing the debt is a significant fraction of the US federal budget, so it's getting a bit out of hand.
Sure, it's easy to say 2% of GDP is too much, but would we be better off if debt was 60% lower and GDP was 50% lower? Debt-service as a % of GDP would certainly be lower!
The US basically seems to be only getting away with the current huge debt load due to the petrodollar, and other countries are trying to break that hegemony.
Is it also easy to say the stock market being over 100% of global GDP is too much? That’s only been true for the past few years too.
One is an absolute value thing and another is an annual thing.
There’s absolutely no logical reason for 100% of GDP to be compared to either thing.
>that number will only rise with interest rates.
Not if nominal GDP/the tax base grows faster. The thing most people miss (and I'm amazed at this given the past few years) is that the point of government debt is to grow the economy.
You can debate whether or not you think it's effective or if we are over-doing it, but you have to at least acknowledge that putting more money into the economy has the theoretical potential to created positive sustainable GDP, which increases the tax base.
Look at Hoover Dam for example - debt funded, but probably responsible for trillions of dollars of GDP over the years. 
Increasing debt doesn't seem to be a guaranteed bad thing but seems to be a risk that's being taken. Other events such as defaults, wars, pandemics, etc... could push things over the edge.
Debt held by the US gov as a whole is only about a quarter of the total
The amount of interest it must pay is proportional to the debt, but can also rise quickly with interest rates a a lot of the debt is rolled over on fairly short timescales (<1 yr IIRC) Debt service is going to start crowding out other spending in short order.
If the US gov monetizes the debt it will mean it has to pay more interest on what remains and what is issued in the future.
So this matters a lot. The situation is untenable.
“With more than $10 trillion of interest costs over the next decade, this compounding fiscal cycleQuote from the article. Also from the article:
will only continue to do damage to our kids and grandkids.”But the debt is on track to top $50 trillion by the end of the decade...The taxpayer's dollar is increasingly being spent on things that don't further any policies whether their desired or no. Simply paying off debt that will mount and mount with no end in sight.
And those are old pre-pandemic numbers. The amount the Fed holds has gone up a lot (aka quantitative easing). So the number is even closer to half now.
Nope. Local maxima at 42.5% circa 21Q4, but currently 38.3% and trending down since.
But even if you were right, it wouldn't matter.
Fed debt is effectively monetized or will be sold back to the public later. It doesn't change anything. At best you can make a hand waving claim about it meaning we can get away with a bit lower interest rates while monetizing.
The rest held by the gov is mostly social security. It represents an obligation to make payments to people outside the government (under current law). Not sure why anyone would think this doesn't matter.
We'll learn soon enough whether the US defaults, monetizes, or substantially reduces SS payments first. Suppose tax increases are theoretically possible, but they would need to be substantial to cover the deficits of 25% we run regularly now.
You just answered your own question.
>in money it can print.
US National Debt is effectively a number indicating how much money the US (is going to) print.
Being the strongest country in the world doesn't mean you can print an arbitrary amount of money. Well you technically can, but everyone (US citizens included) pays the price. And other countries won't play along forever if it means they're going to pay more than what they got from a USD-centric international trading system.
>BRICS is a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa formed by the 2010 addition of South Africa to the predecessor BRIC.
Because if it did just print money to service the debt, the value of the dollar would drop due to more USD in circulation. Remember when a load of money was added to circulation during COVID, and then a year later inflation reached the highest levels in half a century , until the supply started to drop? That was $2.2 trillion USD. Imagine the inflation $33 trillion would bring. https://i.imgur.com/Gpht5iv.png screen grab since there's no way to link to the 25-year duration.
It's not a problem for you if you can take a loan and you don't need to pay it back. You should get as much debt as possible. It's a problem for the guy who never gets their money back.
In effect, the money is borrowed from those who have savings in cash, in the form of inflation. Deficit spending with created money i.e. inflation is a 'hidden tax' which mostly hurts poor people, who have most of their savings in cash.
That's because that is precisely what it is. Here's the ledger.
>What I mean is that the US government is mostly in debt to itself, in money it can print.
The debt is already purchased. The government is in debt to securities holders. Several government agencies have purchased these instruments, but they only represent about 25% of the total holdings.
>Anyway, I really don't understand if and why the US National Debt matters that much (I'm not saying it doesn't, I just don't get it)
When there's a large differential, it means some part of your government accounting is not balanced. There can be good reasons for this, but given the size, continual growth, and no apparent strategy it remains concerning.
Some people happily conflate the two, usually in service of some conspiracy theory or criticism of 'fiat' money.
The government (in a non-command economy) can increase its control over productive capability of the economy in 3 ways:
- Raise taxes (including profits from government-run enterprises). Explicit and honest solution. Understandably, disliked by many and hard to pass politically.
- Promise to give more some time in the future. It's fine when tax receipts grow with the same rate or higher as the debt, but usually the government spends irresponsibly, meaning that more and more of its budget goes into servicing its debt. In the end, you get into a debt spiral.
- Make money printer go brrr. It can take different forms, QE and yield curve control are examples of it. Eventually (there are ways to delay it, and they can work for decades), it causes runaway inflation, which seriously corrodes economic fabric.
It is and a lot of people forget that it's a ledger: every debit/liability that is part of the US debt is a credit on someone else's account. And about two-third of the US debt is held domestically:
Anyhow, the same principle holds for the national debt, just that the repercussions are much more complicated. Certainly if the government defaults on its debts, investors in that debt would be at a loss. And certainly, if the government inflates its debts, creditors and the unwealthy (which, keep in mind, is also mostly comprised of the young) are at a loss due to a debased currency.
But, in either case, if inequality doesn't matter to you, then yes it doesn't matter all. I mean, on one hand, there's no reason we couldn't survive as a society with slavery, we did so in the past. But, also keep in mind, the scale of things. Trillions sounds like a lot, but there are also billions of people out there. It's also possible for the economy (ie productivity) to grow, negating any "printing away of debts".
Here’s one that I just created, which compares the ratio of debt payments to tax collected over time:
In the last 5-years, the US has more debt than GDP.
The last time we experienced this was during WW2.
To summarize it: Japan and US are in two very different situations, the former is one of the largest world's creditor nations, while the latter is THE largest world debitor nation. The reserve currency status, while quite useful for kicking the can down the road, makes situation exponentially more dangerous when the can will hit a wall.
Also, not all of the borrowed money were spent by the Trump administration. When he left the office, TGA had 1.6T dollars.
Federal debt more than $250K per taxpayer. Doesn't include state-level debt and unfunded liabilities such as public employee pensions.
Interest payments on the debt alone now exceed spending on defense
In order to pay these bills, they will have to print more money. Those seeking to protect the value of their wealth will pour it into real estate, equities, and other assets.
This is what the hollowing out of the middle class looks like. The asset holding class will absorb the wealth effect of higher valuations, and wage & salary workers will see their discretionary income diminished as inflation puts healthcare, housing, and education further out of reach.
https://archive.is/TZL2V - https://archive.ph/TZL2V - https://archive.vn/TZL2V - https://archive.md/TZL2V
Of course it's ok to occasionally post archive links to articles, as long as you don't overdo it relative to other sorts of comments. And there should not be such a mechanical pattern to the posts—one link is fine; you don't need 4!
I've found the service all but unusable for well over a month now, which means that paywalled HN posts are not accessible:
Numerous other HN members are noting issues with (Re)CAPTCHA loops:
38 results over the past month on "captcha loop": <https://hn.algolia.com/...>
One workaround for WSJ content, at least, is to look for syndicated publication after a day or so. MSN seems to carry at least some stories as I've noted:
I've already noted that when the NY Times bolstered its paywall in 2019, HN front-page stories fell to 25% of their prior average, apparently due to the paywall and reader response to it (presumably fewer upvotes and more flags) rather than any change in HN's own code, ranking, or practices (admins as opposed to readers). Paywalls, like generic topics (<https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=37565975[Here]>), make for very poor discussion. Not only does the paywall itself become a (really, legitimate) topic, but the already low evidence of having R'd T.F.A. drops to nanoscopic values.
Expecting HN readers to subscribe to even a small fraction of the tens of thousands of sites which appear on the front page (let alone all submissions), or even the ~150 sites I've identified associated with news organisations (even "public" sources such as the BBC and US NPR affiliates are now "requesting" registration and logging in) really isn't viable.
Whether that means HN ban strict paywalls (I'm strongly leaning that way), come up with its own arrangement for major news sites (top 20: nytimes.com, bbc.com, bbc.co.uk, theguardian.com, washingtonpost.com, reuters.com, npr.org, cnn.com, slate.com, vice.com, latimes.com, cnet.com, yahoo.com, sfgate.com, cbc.ca, cnbc.com, guardian.co.uk, bits.blogs.nytimes.com, vox.com, salon.com). The full listing of 149 sites accounts for over 8% of HN front-page topics from 2007 through June of this year.
I also know that HN doesn't like single-theme / topic accounts. But unless HN is willing to run this as a service itself (see the "Who's Hiring / Who Wants to be Hired" threads), this is net-net useful.
There's an additional issue that archive sites might not want to be too strongly associated with a principle role of piercing paywalls. But that just gets us back to the issue of paywalled content on HN and the fact that HN is now leaning on two parties (paywall-exploiting publishers, and paywall-piercing archivists) and potentially causing pain to both rather than grabbing the bull by the horns.
I think my and dang's views are generally aligned. HN's prime directive is intellectual curiosity. A number of online trends, including paywalls, registration walls, and increasingly reader-hostile Web design, all go strongly against this.
HN guidelines request not discussing these as the discussions are boring. HN itself however has the capacity to respond to such trends by deprecating and banning such sites. In some cases it has done so (though generally you've got to ask to find out). In others, such as with the NY Times and its paywall, the response seems more an organic one of readers deciding that this isn't what they're going to tolerate.
I see this as going hand-in-hand with the current phase of copyright battles against both above-board sites such as the Internet Archive, and those which directly flout copyright to provide access to information to untold billions such as Sci-Hub, ZLibrary, Library Genesis, and Anna's Archive. I would very much like to see the latter succeed. The issue of how authors are to be compensated is often raised, to which I'll note:
- Many authors are dead, and have no interest in compensation. (Their estates or corporate owners of their catalogues may, however.)
- The overwhelming majority of authors aren't compensated for their works at all. That would include virtually anyone posting online. For the minuscule fraction who receive any compensation, the lion's share accrues to a minuscule fraction of those. Many authors write as part of another professional role (academics, researchers, politicians and bureaucrats, members of NGOs, or those simply writing about their other work and/or interests). The remaining minuscule fraction of a minuscule fraction of a minuscule fraction are engaged in a lottery, a game of musical chairs, and a highly random Fame Allocation Fairy who smiles on some whilst ignoring others. The smiles often come either late in life or after death (c.f., F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, which gained its broad readership only after his death (1940) when distributed to US forces fighting abroad during WWII (1942--5). Uneven reward for genius is legion, as well as exploitation of authors (and songwriters and musicians and actors and screenwriters) by corporations.
- We're already paying tremendously for content, through advertising, a $700+ billion annual turnover enterprise, the bulk of which is supported by the roughly 1 billion inhabitants of wealthy nations, to the tune of $700 per person ($2,800 for a household of four). And yet advertising destroys and corrupts quality content, often ignoring it completely, whilst promoting utter dreck. I see a tax- or Internet-fees supported system as an attractive alternative, and this could provide the equivalent of all current subscription-media and book-purchase revenues at quite low rates, which I'd further suggest be based roughly on household income and/or wealth. The average works out to about $15/person per month, or $100 per year. Far less than the present advertising tax.
The reason I posted the four archive mirrors, is because readers were complaining that either the .is or .ph links were not working,
and we were ending up with two or more posts with links anyway, so my solution was a one liner.
I am reminded, as per the guidelines that pay-walled Articles must have a work around to be posted on HN:
I will cease and desist posting, as per your request.
Note! Several formatting edits
I appreciate the reply and am sorry for suggesting the bot thing.
Just post the archive.today version, I don't have a citation right now, but I think the owner said (in blog?) that is the way to properly link, it should redirect to the best domain based on user's IP/location.
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