America's debt load is staggering and growing worse by the minute. How did the nation that was the world's biggest lender only a few decades ago become the world's greatest debtor today?
In this day and age, computers bring the world to our door. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, one can watch a real-time clock that shows the growth of the U.S. national debt. The numbers climb at a shocking pace. It's scary to watch how quickly the debt piles up—$48,000 per second, $4.1 billion per day.
The beginning of 2011 saw the U.S. national debt rise to just over $14 trillion, an amount of money incomprehensible to the average person. It's roughly equal to projected U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the worth of everything produced in the United States in one year.
In per capita terms, it adds up to more than $45,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. More realistically, perhaps, the average U.S. taxpayer is on the hook for $127,000, or about 2 1⁄2 years of average household income.
Any country's national debt is simply the combined total of its budget deficits, the difference between what the government spends and what it takes in. The last time the United States ran a budget surplus was fiscal year 2000. The stated surplus of $230 billion for that year pales, however, when one realizes that the federal government borrowed billions from other revenue sources to achieve the stated surplus.
Since that time a perfect storm of economic factors have combined to create the present situation. Falling revenues from the recessions of 2001 and 2008-2009, combined with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and higher spending on homeland security, rapidly plunged the government back into a deficit mode. By fiscal 2008 the budget deficit reached $455 billion, which skyrocketed to $1.7 trillion in fiscal 2010 as the Obama administration resorted to deficit spending to stimulate the economy while maintaining spending levels on existing programs.
What stuns most observers is the speed at which the debt has grown in the past decade. In historical terms, it took from the founding of the United States in 1776 to 2004 for the accruing debt over that long span to reach $7.6 trillion. (The debt would rise during times of war and be paid down during peacetime. Still, the only previous time in U.S. history that the debt approached total GDP was 1944, at the height of U.S. involvement in World War II, but it dropped far lower after the war.)
By January 2009, however, the debt had grown to $10.6 trillion. At the current growth rate of $4.1 billion per day, the debt level will reach $15.4 trillion by the end of this year. That means that in well under a decade the United States will have doubled the amount of debt accumulated in the previous 228 years combined!
A staggering amount of annual interest
Of course, the United States must pay interest on the money it borrows. For fiscal 2008, that interest amounted to about $220 billion, and climbed to more than $383 billion in fiscal 2009. That's more than $1,200 for every man, woman and child in the country—and again, just for interest and just for one year alone!
Several government and private sources predict the annual interest will grow to more than $700 billion by fiscal 2019. By comparison, the entire U.S. defense budget for the current fiscal year is $664 billion. So in plain terms, America will soon be spending more just paying the interest on the national debt than it now spends on national defense! The federal government is obligated to pay this interest; any default, or even failure to make debt payments on time, would seriously damage the government's credit rating in world financial markets.
Mid-January 2011 saw the U.S. Congress girding for a major fight over the debt ceiling, which stood at $14.3 trillion, an amount that will be surpassed by March. A default on that debt would be, in the words of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, "an event that has no precedent in American history."
Default would force the U.S. government to drastically raise the interest rate it pays to those who buy its debt in the form of treasury bills, notes and bonds in order to attract buyers, which would increase annual interest that must be paid—that is, if the government could continue selling its securities at all. The economic and financial tidal wave this would set off in world markets could make the 2008-2009 financial meltdown pale by comparison.
A July 2010 report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) spells out the wrenching effects of such a financial crisis. Higher interest rates needed to attract buyers of government securities would choke economic growth, while forcing the U.S. Treasury to pay additional hundreds of billions annually in interest payments.
The Federal Reserve would likely react by printing more money, fueling inflation, which would create additional pressure on interest rates. The meltdown of 2008-2009 would repeat itself, as more major financial institutions would fail due to collapse of their financial bases.
Throughout American history the U.S. Treasury has found willing buyers for its debt. But beginning in 2008 China, the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, began signaling a growing unease over the amount of debt it holds. A Jan. 14, 2011, Wall Street Journal article revealed that many in the financial world, including foreign governments, are starting to get worried. Moody's Investors Service said in a mid-January report that the United States needs to reverse its expansion of debt if it hopes to keep its current Aaa credit rating.
Said Moody's senior analyst Sarah Carlson, "We have become increasingly clear about the fact that if there are not offsetting measures to reverse the deterioration in negative fundamentals in the U.S., the likelihood of a negative outlook over the next two years will increase." The same article quoted the head of Standard & Poor's (or S&P) France, Carol Sirou, who told a Paris conference that the firm wouldn't rule out lowering the outlook for the U.S. rating in the near future.
America in a financial hammerlock
Fueled by its booming economy, China is now, as mentioned, the world's leading foreign holder of U.S. national debt, having surpassed Japan in that regard in September 2008. A November 2008 Washington Post story cited Beijing's growing sway over the U.S. economy, noting that a decision by China to move out of U.S. government bonds, for economic or political reasons, could lead a herd of other investors to follow suit, which would drive up the cost of U.S. borrowing.
This gives the Chinese considerable leverage over the U.S. economy, should they ever choose to use it. The New York Times reported in early 2009 that China is concerned about the Obama health-care plan, and rising U.S. debt, because they finance so much of it.
Other observers have noted the growing influence of China in U.S. mortgage markets. Increasing Chinese reluctance to invest in U.S. private mortgage bonds could have long-term effects on mortgage interest rates if lenders are forced to pay higher rates themselves for mortgage capital.
"This is a sign of the growing inter-dependence between the Chinese and U.S. economies, but also a sign of a relationship that is not healthy in the long term," said Eswar Prasad, an economics professor at Cornell University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
From largest lender to largest debtor
More and more Americans are awakening to the reality of America's rising national debt, which is by far the largest in the world. How, many ask, did the world's greatest economic power get into this situation?
It wasn't so long ago that America was the world's greatest creditor. In the aftermath of World War II, certainly in the memory of millions, the United States led the world financial system in creating the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. These institutions, formed to help a world recovering from the nightmare of World War II, helped in generating tremendous prosperity in regions humbled and impoverished by war.
But in just over two decades the United States has gone from being "banker to the world" to the largest debtor nation on earth. The financial world is beginning to express its alarm. However, you may be amazed to discover that this very situation was prophesied more than 3,000 years ago!
Believe it or not, the Bible has quite a bit to say about America's debt situation. Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 are known as the "blessings and curses" chapters. Here God Himself warned that foreign powers would gradually achieve dominance over the people of Israel if they rejected His laws and turned their backs on Him.
It seems ominously prophetic of today's situation, where America has gone from the world's leading creditor to its leading borrower. Note the warning: "The alien who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. He shall lend to you, but you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail" (Deuteronomy:28:43-44). It's no wonder that this reads so much like today's headlines when we discover the surprising truth that the majority of Americans are descendants of those same Israelites to whom God gave this warning!
The United States is traveling headlong down an economic path leading to enormous problems, if not outright destruction. Sadly, as Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 show, these national problems are symptoms of a greater problem—the deep spiritual sickness that afflicts a nation that is increasingly turning its back on and denying the God who blessed it so greatly in earlier years.
The question we must all face is: Will the nation wake up in time to take the corrective action needed? Will you? GN