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What We Bought for Nearly $10 Trillion in National Debt

Friday November 4th, 2016   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 6:12am PDT   •  

57675152 - lazy guy on a road works site, a concept From the time that Barack Obama was sworn into office as the U.S. President on January 20, 2009, to the time the next president is sworn into office in January 2017, the total public debt outstanding will have nearly doubled. Since it started at $10.6 trillion, to call that a massively huge run-up in debt is something of an understatement.

But what did Americans buy with all that debt? In a recent blog post, financial economist Scott Grannis considered that question, and also what it means for Tuesday’s elections:

When as a nation we borrow money to finance our federal debt, what matters most is not how much we borrow, but what we do with the money we have borrowed. (Recall Milton Friedman’s admonitions that “spending is taxation.” All money spent must eventually be paid for by taxes, either directly or indirectly, even if it’s financed initially by debt.) Debt that is used to finance productive investments can pay for itself by boosting incomes and creating new jobs (e.g., infrastructure, research). But debt that is used to finance consumption is money that is squandered—Greece comes to mind as a good example of what not to do with borrowed money.

Trnsfr pymts vs GDP

By that measure, we have squandered a huge portion of the money we’ve borrowed in the past 8+ years. For example: Since the end of 2007, transfer payments have increased by $3.76 trillion, rising from 12% of GDP to now 15% of GDP. This is money that was taken from one person and given to another, with no regard as to whether the beneficiary has contributed anything to the economy. Call it “unproductive spending” if you will. And as I noted some years ago, only 8% of the nearly $1 trillion in “stimulus” spending under Obama was spent on transportation and infrastructure. Not a dime went to increase anyone’s incentive to work harder or invest more.

We’ve been spending lots of money in an unproductive fashion, and that helps explain why this has been the weakest recovery ever. As bad as things are, however, this is not necessarily the end of the world. We can reverse course, and with a lot of growth we can reverse the increase in our debt burden, which is what happened in the post-war period. Unfortunately, Hillary will almost certainly attempt to double-down on the failed spending and taxation policies of the Obama administration. Only Trump is talking about pro-growth policies, with the notable exception of his complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of trade.

That sounds about right.

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November 2016