Saturday, February 19, 2011

New perspective: What's your personal share of the national debt?

You've probably seen various numbers bandied about on the Internet claiming to be "your share" of the national debt.  Many approaches are very simplistic - they divide 14 trillion by 320 million people and bam!, you have your share.  But that view suggests that a preemployment child will pay the same as you.  It also suggests that a retired person living on fixed income, single blue collar working mother of of 4 on welfare, and disabled persons who cannot work will all pay the same as you.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but what cannot happen will not happen.  People that have no money cannot pay.  In fact, there is a legal tenet which I experienced during a divorce more than 2 decades ago which states that the person to pay for legal and court fees will be none other than the person with the ability to pay.  In short, the piper is going to get paid one way or the other and it is foolish to count on people who have no money to pay an equal share as those who do have money.  I didn't say it was foolish to want this.  I just said don't count on it because it will not happen.

So if simple division doesn't work then we could go through all sorts of complex algorithms trying to figure it out but I think there is something simple and straightforwardly representative that we can use instead.   The Gross Domestic Product is the sum total of all the economic activity that happens in the country.  It can be loosely thought of as the salary of the nation as a whole.  All of the work we all do and all of the salaries we all make are therefore directly related to GDP.  We are now in such debt that it is about equal to one year's worth of GDP (14 trillion).  The economist way of saying this is that debt to GDP is 100%.   It thus stands to reason that our individual share of this is about 1 year's wages.  You know how much you earn per year.  Does that make it more real to you?  We would all, as a nation, have to work for a whole year without getting paid in order to pay off the national debt.  Of course this would do nothing for the Wimpy Promises that government has made on behalf of social security and medicare, but hey, one problem at a time, OK?

Of course, people who make only $20k per year aren't going to be able to pay their shares no matter what because they are already living hand to mouth.  But I never said people would be able to pay their share and in fact I'm sure we will eventually default on the debt and then hope that the people we screw don't get too angry about it.  So now you might be looking down your nose at those low wage earners because they can't pay their share but if you make $100k or $150k, can you pay your share either?  High earners benefitted most from the debt Ponzi and when it collapses they will take the biggest dollar figure hit after the smoke clears.   They will still be far better off than the poor but the wealth gap is certainly going to narrow over the next decade.  The guy who gets paid $100 per hour for driving a computer is not worth 10x to society as the $10 per hour laborer who does your landscaping and cleans your pool.  Of course, those at the very top will always be at the very top because when you con people for a living it doesn't matter how the economy is doing. 
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