Michael Tanner
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The president devoted just 189 words to the deficit and our growing national debt, but the fact is that once again this year we will borrow 32 cents out of every dollar we spend. Overall, our national debt now tops $15.2 trillion (with Congress raising the debt ceiling to $16.4 trillion last week). And that doesn’t count the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare. Throw those in, and our total indebtedness exceeds $120 trillion.

That means that if one counts only the official national debt, every man, woman and child in America owes $48,700. Include the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, and every one of us is in debt to the tune of $189,000.

Or look at it another way. One can’t pick up a newspaper these days without reading a story about the debt crisis in Europe. France, for example, just had its credit rating downgraded. Yet, measured as a percentage of GDP (the value of all goods and services produced in a country over a year), our budget deficit is roughly a quarter larger than France’s. In fact, among European countries, only Greece and Ireland have larger deficits this year than we do.

The debt figures paint an even grimmer picture. If one includes all the unfunded liabilities of pension and health-care systems, Greece’s total debt equals 875% of its GDP. France, the next-most insolvent country in Europe, owes 570% of GDP. The United States, however, now owes 885% of GDP, more than any other industrialized country.

We have been able to avoid disaster so far only because, as the world’s preferential currency, other countries have been willing to lend us money cheaply. But that is not going to continue forever. And if our creditors begin to hike interest rates, we will be facing the same economic consequences facing so much of Europe today.

The president, when he deigns to mention the issue at all, suggests that this problem could be solved if only the rich pay their “fair share.” Of course some might suggest that the rich already pay their fair share, since the much-reviled 1% earn 16% of all income in this country, but pay 36.7% of all federal income taxes. More important, however, in this context, you simply cannot tax the rich enough to solve our debt crisis.

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Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.

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