Deficits, Debt and Interest on the Debt 1988-2012

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 26th, 2013

History 101

Congress printed so much Money that the Continental Dollar became Worthless

The American Revolutionary War lasted eight years.  And eight years of war ain’t cheap.  It took money to buy arms.  It took money to buy uniforms.  It took money to pay soldiers.  And paying for these for eight years required a lot of money.  Which the Americans didn’t have.  They were at war with Great Britain.  Who was their major trading partner.  And pretty much their only trading partner.  As the Americans were a British colony in the days of mercantilism.  Which meant the Americans sent raw materials to the mother country.  On British ships.  Through British ports.  Britain then transformed those raw materials into finished goods.  And exported them.  On British ships.  Through British ports.  Throughout the world.  And back to America.  Before the Revolution, that is.

Thankfully for the Americans there was a nation that hated the British.  And had been in a near perpetual state of war with them since about forever.  And they had just recently lost their North American territories to the British.  Which they wanted back.  So the French had other interests than American Independence.  But American Independence was a good opportunity to settle the score with their old nemesis.  And when the Americans defeated a British Army at Saratoga the French thought that just maybe the Americans could pull this off.  And if so they wanted to be in on the spoils of a British defeat.

So the French financed a large part of the American Revolutionary War.  But it wasn’t enough.  The Continental Army was poorly fed and poorly clothed.  Even leaving bloody footprints in the snow as the Continental Congress couldn’t put boots on their feet.  Nor could they pay them.  So they turned to printing money.  Unleashing a brutal inflation.  No one wanted the currency.  The inflation was so bad that it lost its value before they could spend it.  So no one wanted to accept the Continental paper dollar.  Giving rise to the expression ‘not worth a Continental’.  Everything had two prices.  A low price if you paid with hard currency (gold and silver coins).  And a very high price if you paid in Continental dollars.  They printed so much money that the money became worthless.  So the Continental Army just took what they needed from the people to keep their men from starving to death.  Leaving the people with an IOU.  That Congress would redeem one day.  Maybe.

The Percentage of Tax Receipts going to Pay the Interest on the Debt has fallen as the Federal Debt Rose

Today hard currency is a thing of the past.  It’s pure un-backed paper these days.  This paper money has no intrinsic value.  And you can’t exchange it for gold or silver that does.  But you sure can print it.  Well, the government can.  And they do.  They borrow and print money like there’s no tomorrow.  Allowing them to spend money they don’t have easier than ever before.  And it’s not just for feeding and clothing our soldiers.  But just about everything under the sun.  Causing the federal debt to soar.

Think of the growing federal debt like a credit card with a growing balance.  And these balances grow fast because each month they charge you interest on your past purchases.  And on your past interest charges.  Which is why if you let that credit card balance get too high it’ll grow beyond your ability to pay it off.  A lot of people who do find themselves filing a personal bankruptcy.  Because the interest charges just balloon their monthly payment.  With the interest in their credit cards consuming an ever larger portion of their paycheck.  As should the interest on the federal debt consume an ever larger portion of federal tax receipts.

Debt and Interest as Percentage of Receipts

(Sources: A History of Debt In The United States; Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Historical Amount of Revenue by Source)

Interestingly, the percentage of federal tax receipts going to pay the interest on the debt has in general fallen as the federal debt rose.  Odd.  The more debt one has the greater the interest one pays.  That’s how it works on our credit cards.  When the debt was approximately $6.2 trillion in 1991 the percentage of total tax receipts going to pay the interest on the debt was 27.1%.  But when the debt soared to $16.1 trillion in 2012 the percentage of tax receipts going to the interest on the debt fell to 15%.  The federal debt grew to be 2.6 times what it was in 1991.  Yet it appears we are paying less interest in 2012 than in 1991.  Something doesn’t seem right.

Interest Rates will Rise as the Purchasing Power of the Dollar Falls, Raising Prices and the Cost of Borrowing

A couple of things could explain this.  And the first thing that comes to mind is tax revenue.  The reason why interest on the debt as a percentage of tax receipts has fallen while the federal debt grew is, perhaps, that tax revenues grew even greater.  So even though interest on the debt could be soaring along with the soaring federal debt the government could be awash in tax revenue.  And if the number you’re dividing by is larger than the number you’re dividing into it than you get a smaller percentage.  Simple arithmetic.  The driver of the federal debt is the annual deficits.  So let’s compare interest on the debt to the deficit.  To see if the interest on the debt rises with the deficit.

Interest on the Debt and the Deficit

(Sources: Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Table 1.1—SUMMARY OF RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, AND SURPLUSES OR DEFICITS (–): 1789–2017)

And it doesn’t.  In fact, the interest on the debt almost held constant when the deficit plunged into a surplus.  And when the deficit soared to a record high.  It seems like there was some other factor involved here.  Something actually keeping the interest on the debt down.  Even when the deficit soared after 2007.  What could do this?  Well, there is only one other thing to look at.  Interest rates.

Interest on the Debt the Deficit 10 Year Treasury

(Sources: Interest Expense on the Debt Outstanding; Table 1.1—SUMMARY OF RECEIPTS, OUTLAYS, AND SURPLUSES OR DEFICITS (–): 1789–2017; Market yield on U.S. Treasury securities at 10-year constant maturity, quoted on investment basis)

And we have our answer.  Interest on the debt has not kept pace with the debt because of bad monetary policy.  Keynesian economic policies introduced permanent inflation into the economy.  The Keynesians in government kept interest rates artificially low to stimulate economic activity.  Those low interest rates stimulated so much economic activity in the Nineties that it created a dot-com bubble.  And when it burst it created a painful recession in the early 2000s.  Also, President Clinton’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending lowered lending standards in the Nineties setting the stage for a great housing bubble that burst into the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007.  And the Great Recession.

The Keynesians have been increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money) in a desperate attempt to pull the economy out of recession.  Which is why the market yield on a 10-year treasury has fallen as the deficit soared in the early 2000s.  And fell even more as the deficit soared even further after 2007.  With the yield falling to as low as 1.8% in 2012.  Even though the demand for so much borrowing should have raised interest rates.  Which would have happened had the government not been increasing the money supply.

And this is why interest on the debt as a percentage of receipts has fallen.  Despite record debt.  Some may look at this and think it’s a good thing.  As it lets the government borrow more money.  So they can give us more stuff.  But printing money causes inflation.  Which has been kept at bay for now thanks in large part to the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.  As investors everywhere are desperate to find a safe harbor for their money during these uncertain times.  But that won’t last forever.  Eventually those interest rates will rise as the purchasing power of the dollar falls.  Raising prices.  And the cost of borrowing.  A lot.  Because of that record debt.  And when they start selling new treasuries at higher interest rates than the ones they’re replacing a very large portion of our tax receipts will go to pay the interest on the debt.  Just like when people charge too much on their credit cards.  Pushing the country closer to bankruptcy.  Just like people with overextended credit cards.  And like countries in the Eurozone.

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LESSONS LEARNED #38: “Repeating a lie doesn’t make it true.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 4th, 2010

Liars Lie

Lying works.  Political spin.  Poetic license.  Fibbing.  Slander.  Libel.  Call it what you’d like.  Politicians lie.  Because it works.  Especially when you can’t win in the arena of ideas.  If they can’t win the philosophical debate what do our politicians do?  Attack the messenger, not the message.  If the history doesn’t validate their policies what do they do?  Revise history.  It never changes.  The only thing that does is the people hearing the lies.

Presidents may dream, but the House of Representatives controls the purse.  That’s why there are numerous battles between Capitol Hill and the White House.  Between Speakers of the House and presidents.  Some of the big partisan battles in recent times?  Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan.  Tom Foley and George H.W. Bush.  Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton.  Nancy Pelosi and George W. Bush.  When different political parties hold the White House and the Hill, the partisanship escalates.  And the lies get more brazen.  Especially on the political fringe.

Some lies bordered on the ridiculous.  Like Ronald Reagan created AIDS to kill homosexuals.  That George H. W. Bush flew to Iran on an SR-71 to meet secretly with the Iranians during the 1980 presidential campaign.  Why?  To negotiate with the Iranians to keep the American hostages until after the election.  That George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers to start a war that would let him invade Iraq.  No doubt there was some political damage from these lies.  But the lasting damage from these ridiculous lies pale in comparison to the Big Lies that the Left perpetuates to this day.

Trickle-Down Economics

Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 until 1989.  When he entered office, the economy was in the toilet.  Double digit inflation.  Double digit interest rates.  Unemployment at 7.1%.  Reagan wanted to cut taxes and spending.  The Democrat controlled Congress wanted to increase federal spending to ‘stimulate’ the economy (ala Keynesian economics).  The Congress fought him.  But Reagan used the bully pulpit and appealed directly to the American people.  They liked his message which brought pressure down on Congress.  They gave a little.  Reagan got his tax cuts.  The top marginal rate went from 70% down to 28% by the time he left office.  The result?  The economy boomed.  They call it the Decade of Greed.  Because we were very materialistic and greedy.  And people lived well.

Yes, but at what cost?  That’s what the Left always says to refute Reaganomics.  What they deride as trickle-down economics.  They point to military spending.  They point to Reagan’s deficit spending.  And the growing federal debt.  The Left says this is what Reagan’s tax cuts have given us.  Growth and prosperity at the expense of future generations.  Which is perhaps the greatest lie of the 20th century.  But because the Left has repeated it so often, a lot of people accept it as fact.  Even though the numbers refute this grand lie.

When Reagan entered office, federal tax receipts were $517 billion.  When he left office in 1989, federal tax receipts were $991 billion.  This is an increase of 91.7%.  Or, to look at in another way, tax receipts in 1989 were 1.9 times the amount they were in 1980.  That’s almost double.  So, despite the great lie of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts did NOT cause deficits or increase the debt.  Cuts in the tax rates brought MORE money into the federal treasury.  Excessive federal spending caused the deficits.  Federal spending increased from $590.9 billion in 1980 to $1,143.7 billion in 1989.  That’s a 93.6% increase.  Spending, too, almost doubled.  In other words, spending increased 1.9% more than tax receipts by the end of Reagan’s second term.  Washington was awash in money.  They just spent it faster than it came in.

Blame the excessive spending on Cold War defense spending or domestic spending.  The point is moot.  Because it doesn’t change the fundamental truth that Reagan’s tax cuts INCREASED federal tax receipts.  Or the lesson learned that tax cuts stimulate the economy.  Anyone saying otherwise is lying and trying to revise history.

Wither on the Vine

The Reagan decade ended prosperously.  Reaganomics were a success.  Which was a threat to those with a vested interest in Big Government.  But people liked Reagan.  And only agreed to vote for George H.W. Bush when he made the infamous ‘read my lips – no new taxes’ campaign pledge.  But Bush was no Reagan.  He wasn’t as conservative.  Or as charismatic.  He couldn’t sell conservative America (center-right) his less than conservative policies (center-left).  The Left, seeing he was no Reagan, maneuvered him into a position favorable to them on the deficit.  The Republicans wanted to cut spending.  The Democrats, of course, wanted to raise taxes.  And with the Democrats in control of the House, he caved.  He raised taxes.  And when he did, he became a one-term president.  The American people were so angry when he reneged on his ‘read my lips – no new taxes’ pledge, the third party candidate in the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot, got 18.9% of the popular vote.  No third party candidate did better.  Exit polling shows he drew equally from both Bush and Clinton, though only 20% of his voters were liberal.  The rest were conservatives and moderates.  Perot brought a carnival atmosphere to the campaign.  Charts and props made for good TV.  This spectacle, though, drew critical attention away from Clinton’s past.  Parts of which moderates would have found objectionable.

Clinton ran as a centrist.  He lied.  As liberals are wont to do during a campaign in a center-right country.  Once in office, he swung to the left.  The American people were angry.  As people are wont to be when lied to.  At the 1994 midterm elections, the people spoke.  And gave both houses of Congress to the Republicans.  Newt Gingrich became the Speaker of the House.  He co-authored the Contract with America which was a Republican pledge to return America to a conservative path.  It appealed to the American people.  It’s what swept the Republicans into power.  And it scared the Left.  So they attacked it.  Called it the Contract on America.  And they attacked Newt Gingrich.  With a vengeance.

In 1995, Gingrich discussed an alternative to Medicare.  Number crunchers projected Medicare (and Social Security) to go into the red a decade or two out.  Medicare (and Social Security) is a big federal expenditure and a political third rail.  The Left uses the elderly as political pawns whenever they can.  Because that’s what Big Government does.  Get people dependent on Big Government and then scare the hell out of them by saying the Right wants to take their benefits away.  Gingrich was discussing high-deductible health insurance plans and tax free Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs).  The MSAs included an annual federal subsidy for seniors.  The plan would be appealing to seniors, Gingrich thought, because they could get better health care coverage with a private plan.  The MSAs and the federal subsidies would make it affordable.  Better care without paying more.  Who wouldn’t want that?  Once people made this choice voluntarily, they would move out of Medicare into a private plan.  Those comments in 1995 included this:

What do you think the Health Care Financing Administration is? It’s a centralized command bureaucracy. . . . Now, we don’t get rid of it in round one because we don’t think that that’s politically smart and we don’t think that that’s the right way to go through a transition. But we believe it’s going to wither on the vine because we think people are voluntarily going to leave it — voluntarily.

Wither on a vine?  Talk about a hanging softball.  There was no way the Democrats weren’t going to whack that one out of the park.  It quickly became ‘Medicare benefits’ and NOT the inefficient ‘centralized command bureaucracy’ that was going to wither on the vine.  The Left ran with it.  Another grand lie.  Repeated it at nauseam.  And scared the seniors.  Gingrich’s days were numbered.  And Clinton had a new enemy to demonize.  Which came in handy when no one wanted his policies.

The Lies that Keep on Giving

Big Government depends on getting as many people dependent on government as possible.  Medicare (and Social Security) is one program that does this very well.  And when Gingrich dared to threaten it, they destroyed him.  With a grand lie.  Like the grand lie that tax cuts stimulate deficits, not the economy.  Perpetuating these lies enables unsustainable government spending.  Threatens the future of all Americans.  And the longer it takes for the truth to come out, the deeper the hole we dig ourselves into.

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