Why the Deficit and the Debt Matter

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 25th, 2013

Economics 101

Keynesian Economists say there is Nothing Wrong with Running a Deficit or a Growing National Debt

We had the sequester.  Before that it was the fiscal cliff.  Before that it was the debt ceiling debate.  We hear these things.  But it’s like water off a duck’s back.  It doesn’t sink in.  We hear but we don’t understand it.  In one ear and out the other.  In fact people are tired of hearing of how we go from one financial crisis to another.  Enough already the people say.  Enough.  Pity, really.  As there are some serious consequences to the decisions our politicians are poorly making.

Part of the problem is that these economic issues are difficult to relate to for average Americans just trying to take care of their families.  A trillion dollar deficit?  A debt reaching $16 trillion?  A lot of people don’t know the difference between the deficit and the debt.  Including many of our television news talking heads.  And then the sheer magnitude of the word ‘trillion’ is just difficult to fathom.  We know it’s big.  But no one uses it in their personal lives.  We know a $200 utility bill is expensive.  An $8,000 property tax bill is expensive.  A $40,000 car is expensive.  But a trillion dollar deficit?  It is hard to make a connection to the size of a trillion dollars.

Compounding the problem are all these Keynesian economists who say there is nothing wrong with running a deficit.  Or the growing national debt.  Despite the financial debt crisis in the Eurozone.  Where running a deficit and growing national debt have caused great problems.  But the Keynesians say that can never happen here.  Because our economy is so much larger.  And the U.S. can still print money.  So people don’t know what to believe.  The government and their economists sound like they understand this stuff.  While a lot of people don’t.  So the people who don’t are more inclined to believe those who sound like they understand this stuff.  Which makes it easier for the politicians who are making all of these horrible decisions to make even more of them.

Over time Interest Charges run up the Outstanding Balance on our Credit Cards

So to understand deficits and debt it would be better to bring it down to our level.  And once we understand it at our level then we can understand better what’s happening at the national level.  So let’s do that.  Let’s imagine a person earning $30,000 a year.  Or $2,500 monthly.  Let’s further assume this person’s earnings are not enough to support their lifestyle.  So they turn to their credit card each month for an additional $100 in spending.  Which is this person’s deficit.  The amount they spend over what they earn.  Or money they spend that they don’t have.  So they charge it.  For this example we’ll assume a credit card with a 24% annual percentage rate.  In the following table we crunch these numbers for 120 months.  Or ten years.

Personal Deficit Spending and Cummulative Debt R2

The columns in the table are fairly self explanatory.  Each month we start with $2,500.  We start borrowing money in month 1 so there is no interest in the first month.  We subtract the interest from the monthly income to arrive at income less the interest charge on the credit card.  Our spending budget each month is $2,600.  Requiring $100 in credit card purchases in the first month.  Each month this increases by the amount of interest charged each month.  The last column is a running total of the credit card balance.

Over time the interest charges run up the outstanding balance on the credit card.  Because we are paying interest on both our purchases and our interest.  So as time goes by this increases our credit card balance at an increasing rate. Soon the interest charges take a larger percentage of our monthly income.  So much so that we need to borrow more and more to maintain our current level of spending.  The interest charge on the 120th month equals 38% of our monthly income.  Chances are that it would never get this bad as we would be unable to make our monthly payment long before the 120th month.  And with an outstanding debt approaching our annual income we probably would have filed for bankruptcy protection long ago.  For at these interest rates it wouldn’t take long before that debt grew beyond our ability ever to pay it back.

Deficit and the Debt Matter because Income is Limited

We can see this better if we graph these numbers.  We can see the cumulative debt growing at a greater rate over time.  Just as does the percentage of our personal income going solely to paying the interest on our debt.  Truly wasted money.  Spending money for things we purchased long ago.  And if we spent it on restaurants and vacations we have nothing tangible to show for this.  Nothing we can sell to get our money back.  Just interest payments that seem to go on forever and ever.  For something that gave us a few hours or days of pleasure.  Which is the worst kind of debt to have.  As there is no way to pay it down other than with current earnings.  Meaning we have to make sacrifices today and tomorrow for spending we did long, long ago.

Personal Income Debt and Interest as Percent of Income R1

On the chart we have a horizontal line for monthly income.  And one for annual income.  We can see that it only takes 21 months for our credit card balance to exceed our monthly income.  Not even two years.  But only 1.9% of our monthly income is going to pay for interest on the debt.  Which doesn’t sound that bad.  So we keep charging.  Just after three years of doing this we break $100 in interest expense.  Requiring 4.2% of our earnings to go to pay the interest on the debt.  It only takes another 2 years to break $200 in interest expense (8.4% of earnings).  It only takes another year to bring the interest charge to $300 (12.3% of earnings).  In 99 months the interest charge breaks $600 (24% of earnings).  And the total outstanding credit card debt is now greater than our annual earnings. Making it very unlikely that we’ll ever be able to pay this balance down.

Anyone who charged a little too much on their credit cards knows what this feels like.  And what those phone calls from collection agencies are like.  Not good.  Anyone who charged anywhere near this example no doubt brought great stress into their lives.  They might have lost their house.  Their retirement savings.  Their kids’ college funds.  Or had no choice but to file a personal bankruptcy.  But when we run our debt up this high there comes a point where we cut up the credit cards.  Making a serious cut in our spending.  Because that’s all we can do.  We can’t just earn a lot more money.  And we can’t print money.  If we could do either we would not have a debt problem in the first place.

This is where average Americans and the federal government differ.  Average people have no choice but to be responsible.  While the federal government can allow the problem to grow and grow.  For they can arbitrarily raise their income.  By raising taxes.  And they can print money.  Unfortunately for average Americans both of these options make life worse for them.  Raising taxes makes us cut our personal spending as if we ran up our credit cards.  Forcing us to get by on less.  And printing money causes inflation.  Raising prices.  Which, of course, forces us to get by on less.  This is why the deficit and the debt matter.  For income is limited.  Whether it’s ours.  Or the federal government’s.  And when you spend more than you have more money goes to paying interest on the debt.  Which is money pulled out of the economy and thrown away.  The ultimate cost of spending money you don’t have.  Money thrown away.  And, of course, potential bankruptcy.

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