Judy Shelton, in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, explains just how dramatically the National Debt has been recently expanded.
Unprecedented spending, unending fiscal deficits, unconscionable accumulations of government debt: These are the trends that are shaping America’s financial future. And since loose monetary policy and a weak U.S. dollar are part of the mix, apparently, it’s no wonder people around the world are searching for an alternative form of money in which to calculate and preserve their own wealth.
It may be too soon to dismiss the dollar as an utterly debauched currency. It still is the most used for international transactions and constitutes over 60% of other countries’ official foreign-exchange reserves. But the reputation of our nation’s money is being severely compromised. …
Even with the optimistic economic assumptions implicit in the Obama administration’s budget, it’s a mathematical impossibility to reduce debt if you continue to spend more than you take in. …
By the end of 2019, according to the administration’s budget numbers, our federal debt will reach $23.3 trillionâ€”as compared to $11.9 trillion today. To put it in perspective: U.S. federal debt was equal to 61.4% of GDP in 1999; it grew to 70.2% of GDP in 2008 (under the Bush administration); it will climb to an estimated 90.4% this year and touch the 100% mark in 2011, after which the projected federal debt will continue to equal or exceed our nation’s entire annual economic output through 2019.
The U.S. is thus slated to enter the ranks of those countriesâ€”Zimbabwe, Japan, Lebanon, Singapore, Jamaica, Italyâ€”with the highest government debt-to-GDP ratio (which measures the debt burden against a nation’s capacity to generate sufficient wealth to repay its creditors). In 2008, the U.S. ranked 23rd on the listâ€”crossing the 100% threshold vaults our nation into seventh place.
If you were a foreign government, would you want to increase your holdings of Treasury securities knowing the U.S. government has no plans to balance its budget during the next decade, let alone achieve a surplus?
Borrowing money from foreign competitors, even friendly competitors, carries serious risks, as Jeffrey Karabell explained in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.
Eventually, when your creditor has you over a barrel, the next loan may require surrendering the role of leading economic power as part of the deal.
Most people are now aware that China is the largest creditor to a heavily indebted U.S. government. It holds close to a trillion dollars of U.S. Treasurys and has invested hundreds of billions more in private enterprises in America. Even though these facts are plainly acknowledged, policy makers and experts continue to underestimate the full ramifications of this relationship.
Consider what happened in 1946, when a cash-strapped Great Britain turned to the U.S. for a loan. For 30 years or more, the British had been consumed by the threat of a rising Germany. Two wars had been fought, millions of lives had been lost, and the British treasury was dramatically depleted in the process. Britain survived, but the costs were substantial.
In spite of its global empire, a powerful military, and an enviable position at the center of world-wide commerce, in early 1946 the British government faced a serious risk of defaulting on its financial obligations. So it did what it had done at various points over the previous decade and turned to its closest ally for assistance. It asked the U.S. for a loan of $5 billion at zero-interest repayable over 50 years. As generous as those terms seem today, such financing had been almost routine in years prior. To the surprise and shock of the British, Washington refused.
Unable to take no for answer, Britain explained that unless it received funds the government would be insolvent. The Americans came back with a series of conditions. They would lend Britain $3.7 billion at 2% interest, and the British government would have to abide by the 1944 Bretton Woods plan, which made the dollar rather than the pound sterling the reference point for global exchange rates and required Britain to make the pound freely convertible. Even more significantly, Britain had to end its system of imperial preferences, which meant no more tariffs and duties on goods to and from colonies such as India. These were not mere financial penalties: Taken together, they meant the end of the British Empire.
Within two years, Britain had left India and was on its way to decolonizing throughout Asia and Africa. Unable to compete with the United States economically and no longer able to reap the benefits of colonial trade, Britain’s military shrank and its commerce contracted. It quickly receded from its dominant global position and entered several decades of economic malaise. In the 1980s, Britain finally emerged as a prosperous country, but it was a shadow of what it had been in its heyday.