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Financial experts in New York, London, and Brussels have tut-tutted Greece’s economic travails as Athens considers its future with the European Union. Why did they borrow so much money? How can they ever pay it back? Do they think that much debt is sustainable?
Instead of pointing fingers at the innumerates running Athens, they should consider our own situation. Jason Russell of the Washington Examiner shows how America’s debt projections look suspiciously like Greece’s recent history.
With all the chaos unravelling in Greece, Congress would be wise to do what it takes to avoid reaching Greek debt levels. But it’s not a matter of sticking to the status quo and avoiding bad decisions that would put the budget on a Greek-like path, because the budget is on that path already.
A quarter-century ago, Greek debt levels were roughly 75 percent of Greece’s economy — about equal to what the U.S. has now. As of 2014, Greek debt levels are about 177 percent of national GDP. Now, the country is considering defaulting on its loans and uncertainty is gripping the economy.
In 25 years, U.S. debt levels are projected to reach 156 percent of the economy, which Greece had in 2012. That projection comes from the Congressional Budget Office’s alternative scenario, which is more realistic than its standard fiscal projection about which spending programs Congress will extend into the future.
If Congress leaves the federal budget on autopilot, debt levels will soar. Instead, spending must be reined in to avoid a Greek-style meltdown.
While we’re right to be concerned about 2040, the U.S. is in deep trouble now. Yet if you mention the debt to most Americans, they’re either confused or indifferent. “But Obama lowered the deficit.” “Just print more money.“ “It’s Reagan’s fault!”
Since most graphs look like this, I created my own user-friendly debt chart focused on three big numbers: Deficit, revenue and debt. (My first version was published a couple of years ago. This one is updated with the most recent figures).
It’s an imperfect analogy, but imagine the green is your salary, the yellow is the amount you’re spending over your salary, and the red is your MasterCard statement.
The chart is brutally bipartisan. Debt increased under Republican presidents and Democrat presidents. It increased under Democrat congresses and Republican congresses. In war and in peace, in boom times and in busts, after tax hikes and tax cuts, the Potomac flowed ever deeper with red ink.
Our leaders like to talk about sustainability. Forget sustainable — how is this sane?
Yet when a conservative hesitates before increasing spending, he’s portrayed as a madman. When a Republican offers a thoughtful plan to reduce the debt over decades, he’s pushing grannies into the Grand Canyon and pantsing park rangers on the way out. While the press occasionally griped about spending under Bush, they implore Obama to spend even more.
When I posted the earlier version of this chart, the online reaction was intense. A few on the right thought I was too tough on the GOP while those on the left claimed it didn’t matter or it’s all a big lie. Others told me that I should have weighted for this variable or added lines for that trend. They are free to create their own charts to better fit their narrative and I’m sure they will. But the numbers shown above can’t be spun by either side.
All of the figures come from the U.S. Treasury and math doesn’t care about fairness or good intentions. Spending vastly more than you have, decade after decade, is foolish when done by a Republican or a Democrat. Two plus two doesn’t equal 33.2317 after you factor in a secret “Social Justice” multiplier.
If our current president accumulates debt at the rate of his first six-plus years, the national debt will be nearly $20 trillion by the time leaves office. That is almost double what it was when he was first inaugurated.
Like many Americans, I haven’t had the privilege of visiting Greece. Unfortunately, Greece will be visiting us unless we change things and fast.