Times Standard (Eureka)
Lots of sound and fury on US debt, but not a crisis — yet
For all the sound and fury about raising the nation’s debt limit, most economists say federal borrowing is not at a crisis point ... at least not yet.
The national debt is at the core of a dispute about how to raise the government’s legal borrowing authority, a mostly political argument that could turn into genuine financial trouble this summer if the U.S. runs out of accounting maneuvers to keep paying its bills.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy insists that the debt, so huge it defies most people’s grasp, is already breaking the economy. President Joe Biden counters that the government spending cuts sought by Republicans in return for a debt limit increase would break the middle class.
The political jousting masks contrasting realities: Today’s $31.4 trillion national debt does not appear to be a weight on the U.S. economy, but the debt’s path in the decades to come might put at risk national security and major programs including Social Security and Medicare.
The national debt is not the yearly deficit, the amount the government outspends its tax revenues. If the government cuts spending or raises taxes, it can trim the deficit and run a surplus, something that last happened in 2001 Less borrowing over time can contain and even reduce the cumulative debt.
However, at a time when high inflation already has the U.S. teetering near a recession, it’s a potentially dangerous game to force more deficit reduction, says Megan Greene, global chief economist at the Kroll Institute.
“Spending cuts and tax hikes would kill off growth in a year when we’re more likely than not to go into recession,” Greene said. “It’s not clear that it would put us onto a more sustainable fiscal footing at all.”
But the debt challenge will keep unfolding over time, meaning that choices may become more severe as the costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid increasingly outstrip tax revenues.