Last fall Jason Thomas, writing in National Affairs, explained the danger of our increasing debt:

The government borrows in a currency that it prints, and it is difficult to conceive of a situation in which it would be more advantageous for the United States to renounce obligations than to print whatever amount of dollars would be necessary to meet them. The real problem is that bond-market investors are not oblivious to this flexibility. When it appears likely that a country will print money to inflate away unsustainable debt burdens, interest rates rise to incorporate an inflation risk premium -- thus increasing the burden on the government and on private borrowers. The danger, then, is that excessive borrowing will bring investors’ hunger for Treasury securities to an end, causing a spike in interest rates that could crush the American economy and send it into a debt spiral we would find very difficult to escape.

Treasury securities have continued to sell, as Thomas explained, because of “the weakness of other countries’ fiscal positions, and the power of inertia and familiarity.” But that can change. Thomas warned:

The Treasury market’s status as a safe haven is not an immutable feature of economic life: It is a function of institutional credibility that took generations to build, but that would take just a fraction of that time to destroy. Were Treasury securities to lose their status as the global reserve asset of choice to gold, other commodities, or a different currency, the consequences for the American economy would be disastrous. Unlikely as such a scenario might seem at the moment, today’s fiscal policies unquestionably increase the probability of its coming to pass.

Fast forward to Thursday and we see this Bloomberg report:

Yields on Treasuries may be too low to sustain demand for U.S. government debt as the Federal Reserve approaches the end of its second round of quantitative easing, Gross wrote in a monthly investment outlook posted on Pimco’s website on March 2. Gross mentioned that Pimco may be a buyer of Treasuries if yields rise to attractive levels.

In other words, as Thomas described, Gross suspects the U.S. Treasury’s excessive borrowing will necessitate a hike in interest rates and thereby set off that dreaded “debt spiral.” We don’t yet know whether Gross is an anomaly or a trend-setter.

Those preaching that there be no slowdown in the federal government’s spend-a-thon, (which is actually a borrow-a-thon) should pay attention, if not to Gross then to Erskine Bowles, the co-chair of the debt commission.

In testimony this week before the Senate Budget Committee, Bowles had an exchange with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). Portman reminded Bowles that the Keynesians “who looked at the stimulus package and said that the roughly $800 billion -- over a trillion when you add interest on the debt -- those folks said our unemployment would be 8 percent last year and 7 percent this year. That hasn’t happened.” Portman then asked Bowles: “Now they’re saying if you reduce spending by 1.6 percent, there would be a great loss of jobs.... What do you think the economic impact will be of reducing spending along the lines you recommended?”

Bowles said that, although not an economist, “what I can tell you from my career as a businessperson and from heading the Small Business Administration is that small businesses can’t grow and can’t create jobs without money. And if we don’t tackle this fiscal mess that we have today, then small businesses will be crowded out of the marketplace and then there will be fewer jobs, not more jobs. If you are really concerned about jobs, then we have to tackle this problem head-on.”

There is, just as Thomas explained, only so much debt you can rack up without having to entice borrowers with higher interest rates. And should the buyers of our Treasuries begin to drop away, we will, as Bowles said, strangle the recovery and impede job growth. That day may be coming faster than the big spenders expected.