The Debt: Government vs. Households

Households are wary for their future due to a cluster of assaults on their pocketbook and sanity; harsh unemployment and underemployment over the last 5 years, high-stakes partisan bickering, energy prices, health care prices, and promises of new taxes.  For many, sources of credit have dried up and loans are available only to those who don’t need a loan.

Despite just glacial progress after the latest recession, households are reducing debt at a steady clip.  Their total debt for mortgages, car loans, credit cards and the like has decreased by $0.239 trillion from Sept 2008 to Sept 2012.  That’s a reduction of 9.5%.  It’s not a large, but it’s rational, encouraging and under the circumstances it’s heroic.

The U.S. Treasury shows a public debt increase of $4.1T over 2009-2012, following a debt increase of $2.1T over 2005-2008.  “Public debt” is a term that could be conveniently misleading.  It really means the accumulated total of federal government income versus federal government expenditures.  In the last 2 years, the government increased public debt by $2.5T.

Households have struggled to stretch unsteady incomes, cut spending where they can and rejoin the workforce.  They’re working smart to find jobs that better harness their talents, jobs that provide a few extra dollars to save for their children’s college costs and their own retirement.  Working against them is an arrogant, perverse spendthrift culture in Washington, always eager to tax, always unwilling to cut spending that buys the favorable political response.  The federal government continues spending itself silly.  It increases the total public debt at an embarrassing clip of 12.2% per year over the past 5 years.

The chronic debt increase is such a dead albatross that the White House tries elaborate graphics to shift blame for the latest 4 years of overspending on — guess whom?  Instead of straight talk on overspending, we are annoyed by wordsmiths who flip any discussion on excess spending into a discussion of insufficient taxing.  And we’re confronted by a modern day Marie Antoinette who ridicules our concern over a mountain of public debt –suggesting we just mint trillion dollar coins to pay it off.   Well, Marie, it’s not so simple.

“Government” does not pay off anything.  Taxpayers will pay it directly and households will pay it indirectly — in perverse ways such as reduced international competitiveness (there goes more US jobs) and in higher costs for goods and services, including government services, eventually.   Households may have won at debt reduction, but their debt-paying muscles will be needed for a second debt workout – bequeathed by the glib politicians who demanded their divine right to overspend.

Alan Daley is a retired businessman living in Florida and following public policy from a consumer’s perspective.

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