Commentary Magazine


Topic: Bureau of the Public Debt

What Is the Size of the Debt?

With the national debt shaping up as a major issue in this year’s election, its size should be clear.

As of February 4th, the national debt amounted to $12,346,427,470,024.01, roughly 87 percent of GDP. This is a higher percentage than it has been since 1950, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Bureau of the Public Debt, however, makes a distinction between “debt held by the public,” which is $7,840,400,752,727.59 (55 percent of GDP) and “intragovernmental debt” ($4,506,026,717,296.42 — 32 percent of GDP), which is held by various branches of the federal government, principally the Social Security Trust Fund.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday, in an otherwise spot-on editorial, dismisses the intragovernmental debt as not really debt at all. “We use the debt-held-by-the-public figure because that is the amount the U.S. government has borrowed from others. The total debt is larger, but that includes Social Security IOUs that are promises that politicians have made to taxpayers and can repudiate. You can’t repudiate public debt except at great cost, as Greece is discovering.”

I disagree. The bonds that constitute the assets of the Social Security Trust Fund and other trust funds are federal bonds, just like those held by the public, except they cannot be sold in the bond market. Instead they must be redeemed by the Treasury on demand. Social Security has been running large surpluses for almost thirty years in order to build up funds to meet the demands of the baby-boomers’ generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). As the boomers begin to retire, the surplus will disappear. It is currently estimated that Social Security will cease to be in surplus in 2017 or sooner if the economy doesn’t recover quickly.

When Social Security begins operating in deficit, the Social Security Administrationwill begin taking those bonds to the Treasury and asking for the money. To be sure, at that point Congress could slash the size of Social Security checks to keep Social Security in surplus, thus obviating the need to redeem the bonds. The sun will rise in the west before that happens, however. So Congress will either have to cut spending elsewhere, raise taxes, or borrow the money with which to redeem the Social Security bonds.

Unless Congress mends it profligate ways very soon, the last option is the one they will choose. Thus over the next thirty years or so, the intragovernmental debt will be slowly transformed into public debt as the trust fund is depleted.

So the intragovernmental debt is just as real as the public debt and the country is just as burdened by it.

With the national debt shaping up as a major issue in this year’s election, its size should be clear.

As of February 4th, the national debt amounted to $12,346,427,470,024.01, roughly 87 percent of GDP. This is a higher percentage than it has been since 1950, in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Bureau of the Public Debt, however, makes a distinction between “debt held by the public,” which is $7,840,400,752,727.59 (55 percent of GDP) and “intragovernmental debt” ($4,506,026,717,296.42 — 32 percent of GDP), which is held by various branches of the federal government, principally the Social Security Trust Fund.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday, in an otherwise spot-on editorial, dismisses the intragovernmental debt as not really debt at all. “We use the debt-held-by-the-public figure because that is the amount the U.S. government has borrowed from others. The total debt is larger, but that includes Social Security IOUs that are promises that politicians have made to taxpayers and can repudiate. You can’t repudiate public debt except at great cost, as Greece is discovering.”

I disagree. The bonds that constitute the assets of the Social Security Trust Fund and other trust funds are federal bonds, just like those held by the public, except they cannot be sold in the bond market. Instead they must be redeemed by the Treasury on demand. Social Security has been running large surpluses for almost thirty years in order to build up funds to meet the demands of the baby-boomers’ generation (those born between 1946 and 1964). As the boomers begin to retire, the surplus will disappear. It is currently estimated that Social Security will cease to be in surplus in 2017 or sooner if the economy doesn’t recover quickly.

When Social Security begins operating in deficit, the Social Security Administrationwill begin taking those bonds to the Treasury and asking for the money. To be sure, at that point Congress could slash the size of Social Security checks to keep Social Security in surplus, thus obviating the need to redeem the bonds. The sun will rise in the west before that happens, however. So Congress will either have to cut spending elsewhere, raise taxes, or borrow the money with which to redeem the Social Security bonds.

Unless Congress mends it profligate ways very soon, the last option is the one they will choose. Thus over the next thirty years or so, the intragovernmental debt will be slowly transformed into public debt as the trust fund is depleted.

So the intragovernmental debt is just as real as the public debt and the country is just as burdened by it.

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