Debt matters as U.S. deals with highest inflation rate in 40 years

The United States’ total public debt has ballooned to nearly $30 trillion. Split among the nation’s roughly 130 million households, that is about $229,000 per household. And the bill is about to go up, as rampant inflation triggers rising interest rates.

Few in the media took notice when the nation’s debt hit the $30 trillion mark. There was little if any reaction from the denizens of D.C.’s political and policy establishment, busy as they are fighting over just about everything. Budget hawks are nowhere to be found.

Setting aside the intergovernmental debt that one part of the government owes to another part, such as what the federal government owes the Social Security Trust fund, debt held by the public is about $24 trillion. That is more than GDP, a level previously seen only at the end of World War II.

Much of the national debt owed to foreign institutions is held by the Japanese and the Chinese, who definitely want to get paid. It should not be overlooked that a growing debt burden may undermine confidence in the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency, making it more difficult to finance economic activity in international markets.

But why worry about debt when vast sums of money can be created out of thin air to pay the interest on all that debt, and nominal interest rates are near zero? It’s a free lunch!

The federal government spends about $300 billion annually on interest payments on the national debt. This is the equivalent of nearly 9 percent of annual federal revenue, and more than the federal government spends on science, space, technology, transportation and education combined.

The cost of servicing debt from past spending reduces the money available for other spending programs.  Each 1 percent rise in interest rates would increase debt servicing costs by about $225 billion at today’s debt levels. This is not chopped liver.

Even in an historically low interest rate environment, the amount of debt we’ve accumulated results in daunting interest costs. It will get even more expensive when the Federal Reserve gets around to raising interest rates significantly to deal with the highest inflation in 40 years.

Who would have thought trillions in stimulus spending and money being printed by the nominally independent Federal Reserve and plowed back into the economy when companies couldn’t produce enough of what consumers wanted would drive prices higher?  More demand plus less supply equals higher prices. The Fed ignored the inflation risks inherent in monetary financing of the government deficits. After all, there is virtually no limit to money creation under a fiat monetary system.

The hard truth is that these folks were out to lunch as the cost of living for ordinary Americans was rising. Paychecks will feel tighter than usual as inflation outpaces wage increases.

Americans are then told that a key way to help relieve rising prices is to pass a $1.85 trillion collection of spending programs and tax cuts known as the Build Back Better bill, which is currently languishing in the Senate. It will deliver good economic outcomes: low inflation and low unemployment.

And now financial markets are nervous about the prospect of the steepest monetary tightening cycle since the 1990s, with markets pricing in more than five quarter-point Federal Reserve interest rate hikes in 2022.

Debt matters. Fiscal responsibility matters. The short-term pain associated with fixes that will bring long-term gains is a real challenge for politicians – especially in even-numbered years. They much prefer to kick the can down the road hoping the bill will come due on someone else’s watch.

The American public is equally culpable, electing politicians who don’t have the courage to advocate for solutions to the debt issue. Those who do are run out of office.

To paraphrase Hemingway’s words from “The Sun Also Rises,” “How do you go bankrupt? Two ways: gradually, then suddenly.”

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