If I gave you a lot of money, would that improve your personal economy this year? Sure.
But what if I merely loaned it to you – with interest? If you spent the money without making wise investments, you’d see an immediate improvement. You can live great on borrowed money for a while.
But over time, your standard of living would suffer. The burdens of living beyond your means would become a weight upon your shoulders. You would become dependent on further loans. And then one day, it all might come crashing down around you.
What applies to households applies to nations. You’ve probably heard that the unemployment rate is hanging around 3.5% nationally and in Arkansas. Jobs are plentiful, inflation is under control, and times are good.
But how much of this prosperity is real, and how much is merely borrowed? And what will happen when the bills come due?
The website WalletHub says credit card debt per household reached $8,701 during this year’s third quarter, equaling more than $1 trillion nationally. As reported by the Washington Post Dec. 26, consumers are making their payments and the amount isn’t increasing as a share of disposable income. But these are still near-record levels of debt.
Meanwhile, U.S. corporate debt has reached almost $10 trillion, or almost half the U.S. gross domestic product, as reported in November by the Washington Post. Of that, $2.5 trillion represents lower-quality corporate bonds. American companies issued $220 billion in new corporate bonds in September alone. Much of the borrowed money is being used on not-very-productive activities, such as buying back shares and paying higher dividends to investors.
One reason for this is the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates to nearly zero. Borrowing has become cheap even for bad companies.
Finally, the national debt increased $1.2 trillion last fiscal year because Congress and the president once again spent more money than the government collected in taxes. That’s roughly $3,645 for every American, or nearly $14,600 for a family of four.
With that addition, the total national debt is now about $23.1 trillion. It’s bigger than the gross domestic product, which means the federal government owes more than the economy annually produces. The government owes $70,000 for every American, and every American taxpayer is paying interest on that.
The current economic expansion has lasted longer than a decade and is the longest in modern history. But it’s not the result of any politician’s brilliant policies, and it may not even be the natural upside of the economic cycle. Perhaps instead we’ve all merely boosted the economy with trillions of dollars of borrowed money. And I haven’t even mentioned student loans, home mortgages, and other forms of debt.
If all this borrowed money were being invested to create an infrastructure for a future economy, it might be partially defensible. But much of it is simply being used to buy something now and pay for it later. Instead of building a foundation, we’re erecting a house of cards.
Of particular concern is the national debt because of its size and because we’re all responsible for it by voting for the politicians who created it. Corporations can rise and fall, and individuals strung out on credit card debt can declare bankruptcy, but nobody is big enough to bail out the U.S. government.
That being the case, this would be the time of the economic cycle when the government should pay down money it borrowed during the last recession. Instead, Congress and the president continually make it worse, adding $2.2 trillion in debt over the next decade through legislation enacted this year, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
What should average Americans do with this information? Step one: Don’t believe the hype about today’s economic “miracle.” Step two: Realize that what goes up must eventually come down, and plan accordingly. Step three: Unlike the U.S. government, invest in your future during good times so you can weather the bad ones. And step four: Let’s stay out of debt ourselves.
Pay off your credit cards, and you’ll be $8,701 ahead of the average household. And you’ll be doing far better than the U.S. government.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.