Monday, July 11, 2011

Debt Ceiling Explained

One problems with the current debt ceiling debate is that there appears to be widespread confusion about what exactly we are talking about. Much of the reporting focuses on the horse race and the daily-back-and-forth of the negotiations. Less effort has been expend trying to explain what the debt ceiling is, why we might wish to see it raised, and what will happen if we do not. It’s boring. It’s complicated. It involves absurdly large sums of money that we can’t really relate to. Worst of all, the topic is, currently, very political. Just wading in to try and understand it means getting caught in the crossfire of accusations.

But it’s important we understand what’s going on and what is at stake. Really important.

At the basic level, the debt ceiling is a pretty simple concept. The US government borrows lots of money to meet its various obligations. The debt ceiling was created by a law passed in 1917 and it determines the total amount of debt the government can have. It’s the limit on the US government’s credit card. It’s a self-imposed limit. The debt limit was created by an act of congress. It can be, and regularly is, increased by congress.

The US has reached the limit. We’ve borrowed all of the $14.3 trillion allowed. Unless the debt ceiling is increased, or a portion of the debt is paid off, the United States government can not borrow any money, at any rate, for any purpose. Ever.

Is that such a bad thing? If I’ve maxed out my credit card shouldn’t I try and pay some of it off instead of trying to increase my limit? Shouldn’t government balance its budget and live within its means?

In general, the answer is “yes”. The government should try to balance its budget. But it is also vitally important that government not cut off its own ability to borrow. There are times when we’re going to want to run a deficit.

For example:

Suppose the United States were to become involved in a war in another country. We might want to be able to conduct the war, and incur the inevitable expenses, even if we have not collected the taxes to pay for it all in advance.

Imagine we had an economic crisis. We might want our government to be able respond to that crisis and borrow money to support institutions that are essential to our economy and our future prosperity.

What if we had a period of very high unemployment? When the economy is in bad shape people need more government support but tax collection is falling as people lose their jobs. Without deficit spending the government has to cut back sharply just when people need it most.

Maybe we think that low taxes are a good idea in and of themselves. If we think low taxes increase liberty and prosperity and are important to economic growth, we might decide to keep taxes low and run a deficit rather than increase taxes to balance the budget.

How will we handle advances in medical science? We can live longer and healthier lives. But medical advances come at a considerable cost. We might choose these advances that improve and extend our lives and livelihood over a clean balance sheet.

Nature can be full of surprises. When there is a tornado, or a flood, or a drought we look to government to help mitigate the disaster.  A government that can’t borrow money won’t have the resources to deal with the unexpected.

And of course there is no guarantee that these issues will crop up one at a time. We might have to deal with several problems all at once.

A government that can not borrow money will be unable to deal with military conflict, ideological rigidity, an aging population, or any form of natural or economic calamity. This will create long-term difficulties.

There are times when we will want to run a deficit. Both of our major national parties agree that right now is one of those times. This spring the Republican controlled House and the Democratic Senate agreed to an annual budget that calls for $1.3 trillion in deficit spending.

That $1.3 trillion represents 44% of the federal budget. For every dollar the government spent $0.56 came from taxes and revenue and $0.44 was borrowed. If the debt ceiling is not raised then the United Stated government will not be able to meet 44% of its obligations.

It is difficult to overstate the implications of a sudden 44% federal contraction. Every month the federal government makes around 80 million payments to a wide variety of individuals and institutions. Soldiers, senior citizens, hospitals, doctors, contractors, federal employees, suppliers, researchers, law enforcement, holders of public debt, etc...  Every one of these recipients is getting money from the federal government because a law was passed saying they are entitled to it. Behind each of these payments is a program, an appropriation, a law or a budget agreement that is just as real, lawful, and binding as the debt ceiling law.

If the debt ceiling is not raised then 44% of those obligations can not be paid. Each one of those recipients is entitled to the money. They are entitled to sue the government seeking the funds that we are contractually obligated to pay them. The government will have no means of meeting its obligations and it will default.

In addition to national default. All the people expecting to get all of those billions of dollars will, suddenly, not be getting them. Employers won’t be able to make payroll, hospitals will not be able to pay their bills, federal employees won’t get their paychecks and won’t be able to pay their mortgages.

Running up against the debt ceiling would not be one-time event. It would be a permanent condition. The debts, obligations, and needs we have in 2011 are not going to go away in 2012 or 2013. Millions of federal contractors and employees who are not getting paid and are suing the government will make things worse. The international community will rapidly withdraw its funds from the US. They will invest in other nations that have not abandoned their obligations.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling would be like the economic collapse of 2008 combined with a permanent government shutdown.

So... we should raise the debt ceiling.

The good news is that the economic cataclysm can be averted by calling a vote to avert it.

The bad news is that many of our elected representatives are refusing to do so.


  1. I am curious how much control the Whitehouse has on who gets paid if this ridiculous event were allowed to occur (not raising the debt ceiling). If they have any control, it might be a poignant moment to let those districts with utterly uncompromising (and unpatriotic in my opinion) representatives feel the greatest pinch. If I recell correctly, those representatives that are most against a compromise are the ones whose districts receive the most federal aid in general. Regardless, if this compromise is not found and the debt ceiling not raised, there will be mob rule.

  2. It's uncharted territory. But I believe the President and the treasury would have complete control. They can decide who gets paid and who does not.

    Deciding to cut off all funding to districts that vote Republican is not exactly Obama's style. It would cause the kind of rift we haven't seen since the Civil War.