Judging from the noises emanating from some corners of Washington these days, the federal debt has assumed pride of place as the source of national anxiety. President Obama has called for independent commissions to seek ways to reduce spending. The media are filled with talk of America's path of financial suicide; economists warn that the debt crisis in Greece is a dry run for the cataclysm that awaits America and the world as U.S. deficits and debt balloon.
The numbers are undoubtedly big, running into many trillions of dollars. The percentages are also daunting, with projections of total gross debt reaching 100% of U.S. GDP this year or next and surging every year thereafter. There is bipartisan agreement that the deficits and overall debt are unsustainable. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has urged policymakers not just to educate the public about the dangers ahead but also "to scare them to death" about the dire prospects if the debt is allowed to continue to grow.
Almost everyone seems to think that these mounting debts are a severe threat to American prosperity. But what if the real problem isn't too much debt but too much anxiety about debt?
Let's take a closer look at the numbers. The amount the U.S. pays to service the national debt isn't particularly onerous. In fact, interest payments in 2010, which so many have touted as approaching $500 billion, are not much different in inflation-adjusted terms from what servicing cost 20 years ago, especially relative to GDP. The same is true for household debt, which has shot up astronomically in sheer dollars but consumes about the same percentage of household income to service as it did in the 1990s.
The reason we can afford such large debts is that interest rates are so low. At the beginning of 2000, it cost the U.S. government more than 6.5% to borrow money. Now it costs less than 2.5%. That means we can borrow 2½ times as much today for the same cost. Also, the overall economy has expanded dramatically, and relative to the size of the economy, the debt isn't particularly high by global standards.
The concern, of course, is that one day rates will inevitably go up, which means interest payments will too. According to this school of thought, as our debt grows, lenders will be willing to take the risk of giving more money only if they can get more in return. And yet with the rise of China, India and Brazil, the world is awash in money looking for safe places. Even with the U.S. economy weak, the dollar remains one of the few truly safe havens, and that means interest rates could stay low for a very long time, which in turn means that our debts however big can be managed.
Indeed, though eliminating deficits might seem wise, it could actually be fatal to future prosperity. China is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on infrastructure, while America can hardly repair its bridges. The U.S. has to invest and spend to build a future, to help re-create a workforce, and for now debt is a means to that end provided Washington shows it can effectively channel that money.
Like home mortgages, much of the debt never has to be paid down. Half of the debt of trillions of dollars is owed by the federal government to itself, and a quarter more is owed to the American public. Because of the unique role of the dollar as the global reserve currency, the debt the government owes itself can simply be rolled over endlessly. Only the interest payments are a must. As long as the dollar remains central to the global system and there is little chance of that changing in the next decade the U.S. will have the latitude to borrow more than most other countries.
Worrying about debt is like gaining too much weight and worrying about the size of your clothing. America's indebtedness would be sustainable and even healthy if the underlying economy were vibrant, innovative and strong and if federal and state governments could channel those moneys productively and quickly. The problem isn't how much debt we're carrying today; it's whether the economy of tomorrow will be able to justify it.
And that is the real nub: America isn't investing enough in its future. We are failing to mobilize resources to improve our health care and infrastructure and stay competitive in a global economy that is more clamorous than ever. Focusing on how much we owe won't help us meet our real challenges. America's problem isn't large clothing; it's a body politic that is sliding into dangerous habits. Obsessing about the debt is a distraction we can't afford.
Karabell is the president of River Twice Research and author of Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy