Five Facts About the Debt

Setting the economic record straight.


Five under-appreciated points about the federal budget and debt ceiling:

1. Whenever I need to get my bearings in the debate over the debt, the deficit, or the debt ceiling, I go to the web site of the White House Office of Management and Budget and download historical table 1.3. The story it tells, in very round numbers, is as simple as 2, 3, 4. The federal government spent about $2 trillion in 2000, at the end of the Clinton administration. It spent about $3 trillion in 2008, at the end of the Bush administration. And it is going to spend about $4 trillion in 2011, three years into the Obama administration.

You can fool around with inflation and with the percentage of GDP and with the revenue side of the equation, but the bottom line is that the federal government is spending about double what it was at the end of the Clinton administration. For all the clamor on the left to bring back the Clinton-era top tax rates, there are few, if any, politicians in Washington talking about bringing back the Clinton-era spending levels.

2. A default wouldn't be as bad as President Obama says. "If interest rate costs go up for the United States, they're probably going to go up for everybody. So it would be a indirect tax on every single one of you. Your credit card interest rates would go up. Your mortgage interest would go up. Your student loan interest would potentially go up," Mr. Obama said Friday.  "So it is not an option for us to default."

The reference to "every single one of you" is inaccurate. Credit card interest rates apply only to those who carry a balance from month to month; those with no credit card debt would be unaffected. As for mortgage rates, roughly 93 percent of homes with outstanding mortgages have fixed-rate loans; those payments would be unaffected, too. Home prices might decrease if mortgage rates go up for new buyers, but that'd be good for those people who haven't yet bought a home. As for student loan interest rates, since 2006 they've been set by law, under the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, at 6.8 percent.

Even Michael Bloomberg, who knows something about bonds, said the other day that if America defaults, "The world won't come to an end….We will find a way to pay people afterwards and get government going again."

3. President Obama's most recent annual personal financial disclosure form showed that he has by far most of his personal assets, anywhere between $2 million and $10 million dollars, in "U.S. Treasury Notes" and "U.S. Treasury Bills." It sure would be interesting to know if he has since moved out of those positions. If he hasn't, someone should ask him why he's so eager to pay more in income taxes, yet so unwilling to take a haircut on his bond portfolio.

4.  When it was Chrysler secured bondholders objecting to getting defaulted on by the president's auto task force, Mr. Obama denounced them as "a small group of speculators" who were "hoping that everybody else would make sacrifices and they would have to make none." Where was Mr. Obama's newfound respect for bondholders back during the Chrysler deal? Or, conversely, if Chrysler bondholders should have had to bear some sacrifice then, why shouldn't Treasury bondholders now?

5. That constitutional provision in the 14th Amendment that says "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law…shall not be questioned" is followed immediately by a section that says "The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article." It doesn't say "the president." It says, "The Congress." Likewise, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power "to pay the debts" and "to borrow Money on the credit of the United States." If there's a way out of the spending and borrowing problem, it's not only going to be a result of the 2012 presidential election. Congress is going to have to rise to the challenge, too.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of Samuel Adams: A Life.