All too often, we view national debt as something that really isn’t our problem. We think of it as just “the” national debt, or the government’s problem, when, in fact, it’s our problem. According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, as of the time I’m writing this, the U.S. national debt is $19,863,854,198,063. This averages out to $61,153 dollars per citizen or $165,564 per taxpayer. There are differing factors that, when added to the equation, could change the numbers a little, but that is not the focus of this article. However, regardless of how you look at it, there are no two ways about it — we are talking about a lot of money!
So, what is the problem with our national debt? In short, the problem with any debt is that at some point the debt is required to be paid. I’m definitely not a financial expert, so I cannot presume to offer any comprehensive solutions. Instead, my goal is to look at some history and help us better understand exactly where we stand today. I’d like to look at three things:
1) How Our Founders Viewed National Debt
2) How Our National Debt Has Changed Over The Years
3) A Brief Breakdown Of Our National Debt and How It Accumulates
How Our Founders Viewed National Debt
National debt has been around since the beginning of our country. Although they were not all of the same opinion, the majority of our founders were definitely aware of the potential dangers of a national debt and the problems future generations could face if a careful check was not placed upon it.
Rich Tucker writes in an article from heritage.org:
“The Founders of the United States wanted to establish a country that could endure for generations, and they understood that massive debt would endanger their project. They knew that managing public finances to force government to live within its means was the prudent thing to do.
“They understood that it would sometimes be necessary for the country to run a deficit—for example, during times of war—and that this would lead to debt. They had recently come through their own revolution successfully in large part because they were willing to borrow heavily to pay their bills.
“Still, the Founders generally disapproved of debt and believed that the amount the country owed should be limited.”
Let’s let them speak for themselves:
“A departure from principle becomes a precedent for a second; that second for a third; and so on, till the bulk of society is reduced to mere automatons of misery, to have no sensibilities left but for sinning and suffering… And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt. Taxation follows that, and in its train wretchedness and oppression.”
“Allow a government to decline paying its debts and you overthrow all public morality —you unhinge all the principles that preserve the limits of free constitutions. Nothing can more affect national prosperity than a constant and systematic attention to extinguish the present debt and to avoid as much as possible the incurring of any new debt.”
“Avoid occasions of expense. . . and avoid likewise the accumulation of debt not only by shunning occasions of expense but by vigorous exertions to discharge the debts, not throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear.”
“The consequences arising from the continual accumulation of public debts in other countries ought to admonish us to be careful to prevent their growth in our own.”
How Our National Debt Has Changed Over The Years
It was borrowed money that helped us win the American War for Independence. The difference between our founders and many politicians today is that, while our founders recognized national debt as a necessary evil in some circumstances, they also saw the importance of settling accounts — not driving us farther into the hole!
Here are a few facts:
– When Alexander Hamilton was serving as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury from 1789-1795, he estimated the national debt to be around $77 million.
– Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829-1837, is the only president to achieve the total elimination of debt during his presidency.
– In 1988, our national debt was only half of our economic output. Today, our national debt is greater than what the United States produces in a whole year.
– Of all our presidents, Barrack Obama and George W. Bush added the most to the national debt dollar-wise, while Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson added the most percentage-wise (this may seem confusing at first glance, but it’s actually quite fascinating. See the link in the sources for more information about how these percentages work out).
– This brings us to 2017. There have been some reports (shrouded with much debate!) that President Trump actually lowered our national debt during his first month in office. Whether or not this is true, the overall outcome of the national debt under President Trump’s time in office obviously remains to be seen.
A Brief Breakdown Of Our National Debt and How it Accumulates
The United States’ national debt is currently the highest of any single country in the world. The European Union, which is made up of 28 countries (until the United Kingdom completes its scheduled withdrawal by 2019), even ranks lower than the United States (although just slightly).
In an article from thebalance.com, Kimberly Amadeo writes,
“The national debt is the public and intragovernmental debt owed by the federal government. Two-thirds of the U.S. debt is the Treasury bills, note[s], and bonds owned by the public. They include investors, the Federal Reserve, and foreign governments. One-third is the Government Account securities owned by federal agencies. They include the Social Security Trust Fund, federal public employee retirement funds, and military retirement funds.”
Once again, Kimberly Amadeo writes,
“There are [several] significant causes of the size of the national debt. First, the debt is an accumulation of Federal budget deficits. Each new program and tax cut adds to the debt. These show up in budget deficits by president. The largest deficit goes to President Obama [the second goes to George W. Bush]…
“…Second, every president borrows from the Social Security Trust Fund. The Fund took in more revenue than it needed through payroll taxes leveraged on baby boomers. Ideally, this money should have been invested to be available when the boomers retire. Instead, the Fund was “loaned” to the government to finance increased spending. This interest-free loan helped keep Treasury Bond interest rates low, allowing more debt financing. But it must be repaid by increased taxes when the boomers do retire.
“Third, countries like China and Japan buy [Treasuries] to keep their currencies low relative to the dollar.
“They are happy to lend to America, their largest customer, so it will keep buying their exports. Even though China warns the United States to lower its debt, it continues to buy Treasuries. But China has lowered its holdings of U.S. debt in 2016.
“Fourth, the Federal government benefits from low interest rates. It couldn’t keep running budget deficits if interest rates skyrocketed like they did in Greece. Why have interest rates remained low? Purchasers of Treasury bills are confident that America has the economic power to pay them back. During the recession, foreign countries increased their holdings of Treasury Bonds as a safe haven investment. These holdings went from 13 percent in 1988 to 31 percent in 2011.
“Fifth, Congress raises the debt ceiling. Congress sets a limit on the debt but usually increases it. That didn’t happen between 2011 to 2013, though. That was because the debt crisis resulted in a government shutdown and budget sequestration. In 2015, Congress suspended the ceiling until after the 2016 Presidential elections.”
What’s important for us to remember is that, with the passing of time, we are getting closer to when our national debt is going to be required of us. We must consider this as a nation if we don’t want to end up bankrupt — as we’ve seen in recent years with Greece!
Again Rich Tucker writes,
“As George Washington warned lawmakers in 1793, ‘No pecuniary consideration is more urgent, than the regular redemption and discharge of the public debt: on none can delay be more injurious, or an economy of time more valuable.’
“As the country approaches, and smashes through, the debt ceiling once again, it would be wise to take Washington’s words to heart. Rather than borrowing trillions more, the United States needs to begin paying down some debt before the burden becomes crushing.”
I will leave you with a thought-provoking quote from Benjamin Franklin:
“When you run in debt; you give to another power over your liberty.”
-U.S. National Debt Clock:
-Considering other factors:
-What is the National Debt:
-The U.S. Debt and How it Got So Big:
-U.S. Debt By President:
-Founding Fathers on national debt: http://theunforgottenamerican.com/2011/04/founders-debt/505
-More from the Founders:
-Andrew Jackson and national debt: