FROM 1789 to 1980 the federal government accumulated $914 billion in debt. Then came Ronald Reagan, with his simultaneous tax cuts and defense buildup. Now the national debt is $2.5 trillion and still rising. Just the interest on the debt is $150 billion a year, a seventh of the budget. And is the president deterred?
Not really. Yes, he conceded in an interview with this newspaper's Lou Cannon the other day, the deficit is a "burden," but "not the disaster some people proclaim." Indeed, he went on, warming to the subject, in some respects it is a boon. That is because the interest payments are not just a cost, but -- to the bondholders -- a source of income. "So instead of it being something that's just disappearing down a rat hole, it's a kind of a redistribution . . . of national wealth," the president marveled.
The longer he painted, the sunnier the picture became. Some of the interest goes to "individual Americans" as "part of their savings," surely an estimable transaction. Some also goes to "universities, educational institutions," whose endowments are partly invested in government bonds. Some of these institutions "would have to be getting straight grants from the government if they were not getting that interest," the president concluded. It's not a question of whether to pay, but how.
In some respects, of course, he's right. One man's burden is another's income; the interest payments are a form of income redistribution -- only the direction is mainly up the income ladder and out of the country. According to the government's own statistics, educational institutions hold only a minuscule share of the national debt. Foreigners, by contrast, hold at least a seventh of it. Individual Americans hold the most -- and the richest Americans the most of that. Interest income, like all other income, goes disproportionately to those in the upper income brackets. More than a third of all taxable income goes to the richest 10 percent of all taxpayers. These are the same people who have benefited most from the Reagan tax cuts.
The debt accumulated by this administration, its history of preferring to borrow rather than to tax, will be a drain on the economy and add to income inequality for years. The president should look elsewhere for his good news.