The national debt and Washington's deficit of will
Bill Gross is used to buying bonds in multibillion-dollar batches. But when it comes to U.S. Treasury bills, he's getting nervous. Gross, a founder of the investment giant Pimco, is so concerned about America's national debt that he has started unloading some of his holdings of U.S. government bonds in favor of bonds from such countries as Germany, Canada and France.
Gross is a bottom-line kind of guy; he doesn't seem to care if the debt is the fault of Republicans or Democrats, the Bush tax cuts or the Obama stimulus. He's simply worried that Washington's habit of spending today the money it hopes to collect tomorrow is getting worse and worse. It even has elements of a Ponzi scheme, Gross told me.
"In order to pay the interest and the bill when it comes due, we'll simply have to issue more IOUs. That, to me, is Ponzi-like," Gross said. "It's a game that can never be finished."
The national debt -- which totaled $8,370,635,856,604.98 as of a few days ago, not even counting the trillions owed by the government to Social Security and other pilfered trust funds -- is rapidly becoming a dominant political issue in Washington and across the country, and not just among the "tea party" crowd. President Obama is feeling the pressure, and on Tuesday he will open the first session of a high-level bipartisan commission that will look for ways to reduce deficits and put the country on a sustainable fiscal path.
It's a tough task. The short term looks awful, and the long term looks hideous. Under any likely scenario, the federal debt will continue to balloon in the years to come. The Congressional Budget Office expects it to reach $20 trillion over the next decade -- and that assumes no new recessions, no new wars and no new financial crises. In the doomsday scenario, foreign investors get spooked and demand higher interest rates to continue bankrolling American profligacy. As rates shoot up, the United States has to borrow more and more simply to pay the interest on its debt, and soon the economy is in a downward spiral.
Of course, at least in theory, this problem can be fixed. Unlike a real Ponzi scheme, which collapses when no new suckers offer money that can be used to pay off earlier investors, the government can restore fiscal sanity whenever our leaders decide to do so.
But that premise is what has people like Gross worried. In addition to running a budget deficit, Washington for years has had a massive deficit of political will.
Over the past decade, lawmakers have avoided the kind of unpopular decisions -- tax increases, spending cuts or some combination -- needed to keep the debt under control. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testified recently that, for investors, the underlying problem with the debt isn't economic. "At some point, the markets will make a judgment about, really, not our economic capacity but our political ability, our political will, to achieve longer-term sustainability," he said.
The economic recovery has been picking up steam in recent weeks -- "America's Back!" trumpets Newsweek -- but the political recovery has been feeble. Whether on taxes, entitlements, military retooling, financial reform, energy policy or climate change, Washington is mired in a political enmity that makes tough decisions nearly impossible.
In the fiscal debate, the default position, as it were, is to do nothing. Debt is the grease of Washington legislation; for short-sighted leaders, it is less a political problem than a political solution. As long as the government can continue borrowing at reasonable rates, citizens can have their tax cuts and government services, and eventually the growing debt becomes someone else's problem.
"This is all an exercise in current generations shifting burdens on future generations," Brookings Institution economist William Gale says. "Future generations don't vote, of course."
Many careers in Washington have come to an end as casualties of the long battle to restore fiscal balance. President George H.W. Bush in 1990 went back on his "no new taxes" pledge and lost much of his political base. By the narrowest of margins -- with Vice President Al Gore breaking a tied vote in the Senate -- President Bill Clinton raised taxes again in 1993, and House Democrats were pummeled in the following year's midterm elections, giving up control of the chamber to the GOP for the first time in 40 years.