Why America Will Never Surmount Its Mountain of Debt


from Schiff Gold:

Can America hope to climb past its mountain of $34 trillion of federal debt? With the staggering weight of unfunded liabilities in vital entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare reaching a staggering $212 trillion, any strategy for repayment is met with formidable obstacles. Our guest contributor examines these challenges and arrives at a sobering verdict: the magnitude of the debt renders the prospect of repayment virtually impossible.

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While clearing the debt may be beyond reach, the US can still take decisive action to rein in spending and prevent further exacerbation of its dire financial predicament.

The following article was originally published by the Mises Institute. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Peter Schiff or SchiffGold.

US fiscal realities are well known. Total federal debt outstanding has now reached $34 trillion, up from $98 billion in 1981, $5.67 trillion in 2000, $13.56 trillion in 2010, and $26.95 trillion in 2020. And at 120 percent of the US economy’s productive capacity (gross domestic product), the federal debt matches that at the end of World War II.

That $34 trillion, when spelled out, is the number thirty-four followed by twelve (count ’em) zeros separated by four commas. So it looks like this, a lot of digits and commas for the human brain to comprehend: $34,000,000,000,000.

These official debt figures do not even include the large unfunded liabilities inherent in the largest federal entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, Medicaid, and several others that comprise about two-thirds of federal spending. We can, however, accurately forecast those liabilities over the next seventy-five years—the time horizon used by the trustees of the two funds that finance the programs—because the future beneficiaries have already been born and will expect their benefits when they become eligible. Unfunded liabilities are currently estimated at $212 trillion.

The two programs, Social Security and Medicare, are structured so that future workers will be paying sufficient payroll taxes to pay future benefits as the population ages. But the trustees of the two programs project that the trust funds do not currently contain sufficient resources to fully cover these future benefits past the middle of the next decade without congressional changes.

Outstanding Debt versus Federal Budget Deficits

Where did all this debt come from? In the simplest sense, it came from too much spending. There tends to be confusion between annual federal budget deficits and the total outstanding federal debt. We’re referring here to the debt, not simply to the annual budget deficits that continue to increase the debt every time the federal government spends more than it receives in tax revenue.

This deficit spending results every year that the legislative and executive branches of our federal government can’t seem to control their spending habits, which has been the case every year since the late 1990s when the federal government last ran a small surplus. Annual federal budget deficits currently run at the $1.7 trillion level, compared to the $34 trillion debt.

Motivation to Pay Off the Federal Debt

Is there any motivation to attempt a debt payoff? Many Americans appear to have been lulled into accepting some variant of modern monetary theory, which has infected the populace like a virus, and which a small fringe group of economists believe allows a sovereign nation with its own sovereign currency to spend without limit, being able simply to issue more of its own currency to pay off any debt with impunity. Though these believers do not outright state that there is no limit to the amount of debt that sovereign countries can take on with no concern about ever repaying, reading between the lines and watching their behavior certainly indicates this conclusion.

What Debt Payoff Might Look Like

If there is any motivation to pay off the federal debt, what would this payoff actually entail? In the simplest terms, dividing the current outstanding $34 trillion debt by the current US population of 334,233,854 (as of January 1, 2023) yields a one-time per capita payoff figure of $101,725.18 for every man, woman, and child in the US.

While this undoubtedly exceeds the average savings account owned by most Americans, it doesn’t look like an outrageously high figure. But, of course, we’re assuming no more annual federal budget deficits that increase the debt, which would be a difficult promise for Congress and any president to keep. But if such a payoff were possible, it would obviate the need to continue paying interest on the debt, an outlay that now runs about $1 trillion annually.

Another approach to pay off the federal debt over time might be to structure the debt payoff similarly to an amortized mortgage. As a hypothetical thought exercise, picture that you’ve taken on a $34 trillion mortgage to buy your ultimate dream house.

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