National Emergency

February 13, 2019

Yes, we are facing a national emergency, and it’s not along our southern border.

Our real national emergency is our National Debt.

Let’s first agree that when the U.S. federal government runs a deficit, or spends more than it receives in tax revenue, the U.S. Treasury Department borrows money to make up the difference.

Next, let’s agree that our national debt is the amount of money the federal government has borrowed through various means, including: (1) by issuing bills, notes and bonds which are bought by investors (domestic and foreign), including the public, the Federal Reserve and foreign governments; (2) through intra-governmental debt, essentially money borrowed from trust funds used to pay for programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The great majority of economists and economic and fiscal analysts tend to agree that the significance of national debt is best measured by comparing the debt with the federal government’s ability to pay it off using the debt-to-GDP ratio, simply by dividing a nation’s debt by its gross domestic product.

Various sources have estimated that a healthy debt-to-GDP ratio is in the 40% to 60% range.  A longitudinal study conducted by World Bank economists published in 2010 estimated that in highly developed countries, 77% was a ‘tipping point’ where productivity and potential economic growth was constrained by adding additional debt without addition of incremental revenue.  (In emerging economies, they estimate that 64% is the tipping point.)  In either case, potential for default begins to increase once the tipping point has been breached, thus putting upward pressure on borrowing costs.

The first instance when U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio exceeded 77% was toward the end of World War II.  In the post-war years, our national debt shrank in comparison to the booming post-war economy, and the debt-to-GDP ratio fell as low as 24 percent in 1974.

Recession and rising interest rates during the Carter administration put upward pressure on the debt-to-GDP ratio, and once the tax cuts enacted during Reagan’s first term combined with increased spending on both defense and social programs, the debt-to-GDP ratio reached 50 % in July 1989.

Economic growth in the ‘90s, combined with tax increases under both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped keep the debt load in line, and by the end of December 2000, our national debt was about 55% of GDP.

Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, U.S. military spending spiked, yet tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 during the George W. Bush administration combined with a mild recession in 2001 and the Great Recession beginning in 2007 caused significant decreases in tax revenues. By the time Barack Obama took office in January 2009, the debt-to- GDP-ratio reached 75%.

Deficit spending is one of the key tools available to stimulate economic recovery, and by the time of Obama’s 2nd inauguration in January 2013, the U.S. debt had grown to $16 Trillion – a debt-to-GDP ratio of 101%. By that time, it was clear that the economic stimulus of deficit spending had worked, evidenced by an expanding U.S. economy; signs of ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; resurgence of the U.S. stock market; continued job growth; and other positive economic indicators.

All of these positive signs at the beginning of 2013 pointed to the need to rein in government spending and to strategically increase revenues (i.e. raise taxes).

Yet, the Congress has stubbornly refused to deal with the reality that our U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio has remained above 100 percent since 2013.

In early 2018, an analysis by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in late 2017 will push the U.S. national debt to $33 Trillion — 113 % of GDP — by 2028, a ratio not seen since immediately after World War II.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act is a sham (and a scam) which created a situation exactly opposite of what responsible elected officials should have supported.  The sooner it is  amended, repaired or repealed, the sooner the American people will be transitioned into a less dangerous and more stable and sustainable economic environment.

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