Where the Billions Go: a Periodic Reminder

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

On Tuesday the House passed a massive bill authorizing spending for the military for next year; it is expected to quickly pass the Senate, after which President Biden will sign it. Despite objections from some progressives (and a few conservatives who have decided the Pentagon is too liberal), the vote to allocate $768 billion in spending was bipartisan, with a final tally of 363 to 70.

While there were intense backroom negotiations over certain provisions that got dropped, such as a proposal to have women register for the draft, the basic idea underlying the bill — that we should always and forever spend spectacular amounts of money on guns, bombs, tanks, planes and ships — is simply not a matter of debate.

The contrast with how we treated the far less costly bills Democrats have recently advocated, particularly the infrastructure law and the Build Back Better bill, could not be more stark.

We spent endless TV hours and newspaper column inches debating the precise size of those bills and how they would be paid for. Is $3.5 trillion too much? How about $1.9 trillion? Would $1.7 trillion work? Should we increase taxes on the rich to fund them, and if not, where do we get the money?

Nobody ever asks “Where do we get the money?” when it comes to a defense bill. And that $768 billion? It’s a single year’s figure, unlike the 10-year totals that are used to describe infrastructure and BBB.

So I did some quick calculations based on previous spending. If the defense budget were to rise 4 percent a year (about what it has over the past couple of decades), 10 years from now we’d spend $1.1 trillion a year . . . 

But here’s what you won’t see: headlines about how Congress is voting for a projected $9 trillion in spending oh my god!

You will not hear that from Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). You will not hear that from any Republicans, of the ordinary conservative or more extreme T____ist variety. You will not hear it from the sage pundits on the Sunday shows.

No one will talk about how irresponsible it is to spend like a drunken sailor, no one will cry that it’s terribly cruel to saddle our children and grandchildren with so much debt, and no one will warn darkly that such spending will surely send inflation rocketing upward.

Conservative Republicans are ranting angrily about the fact that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) made a deal with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) to raise the debt ceiling, as though it betrays everything conservatives are supposed to believe in. If you asked them how that concern applies to the defense spending bill, they’d either look at you like you were mad or just say they’re committed to making sure the American military is the finest in the world.

Which reveals a fundamental truth: Nobody thinks we should worry about debt or potential economic consequences when it comes to the spending they happen to like. It’s only when we’re talking about things they don’t want to spend money on at all that they marshal those arguments.

There has long been a collective agreement that we’ll simply exempt military spending from those kinds of budgetary worries. Everyone just assumes that spending as much on the military as on everything else we decide to do on a year-to-year basis is just how things work. We usually spend at least half our discretionary budget on the military (mandatory spending, which includes Social Security and Medicare, is a different category).

Nor do we ever have a real discussion about what the military ought to be for. We might debate whether a particular war was a bad idea, or whether we ought to be less eager to launch full-scale invasions, but we don’t debate the fact that even referring to this spending as “defense” is a kind of self-delusion.

That’s because only a small portion of the military budget is about “defense” in any meaningful sense. Instead, it’s about maintaining our ability to project our power outward. F-35 fighter jets (total cost: $1.6 trillion and climbing) are not patrolling the skies over California and New Jersey to watch for a foreign invasion.

All those personnel (1.3 million active duty, another 750,000 or so civilians, and hundreds of thousands of contractors) spend most of their time working and training for operations that we assume will take place outside our shores. We maintain hundreds of bases in dozens of countries. We define our “security” in a way that is profoundly different from nearly every other nation, in that we conceive of it as something that is won and lost elsewhere.

There are plenty of people who consider that perfectly appropriate. But the point is that we almost never debate whether that’s what we actually want, or how much we should be spending on the military relative to the other things we’d like to do with our money.

There’s an old lefty bumper sticker that reads, “Imagine if the schools had all the money they need and the Air Force had to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.” It’s funny because it’s absurd. But it represents a choice we made — and one we continue to make, without much public debate, every year. . . . 

Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 3

If you use a credit card to buy $1,000 worth of stuff, you have taken on $1,000 worth of debt. You either have to give the credit card company $1,000 the next time they send you a bill or pay an outrageous amount of interest on what you haven’t paid off.

The federal government is in a similar situation. Since 1970, except for the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal government has taken on more debt. It’s spent more money than it’s received through taxation, i.e. it’s run a deficit. As a result, the total national debt has increased.

In order to make up the difference, the government has issued bonds, i.e. borrowed money from investors in the bond market (in other words, the government is you and the bond market is the credit card company).

So, in 2020, the last year of the T____ administration, the government spent $6.5 trillion. But the government’s revenue, partly due to tax cuts, was only $3.4 trillion. That means, roughly speaking, the federal government needed to come up with $3.1 trillion dollars to pay its various bills. It was necessary to sell a lot of bonds.

But more than 100 years ago, during World War I, Congress decided that instead of approving the sale of all those bonds, they would set an upper limit on how many bonds the government can sell. That gave the people at the Treasury Department some flexibility. They didn’t have to repeatedly ask Congress for permission to sell more bonds to pay the government’s expenses.

There have been a few changes to the debt limit law since then, but that’s the basic idea. Congress and the president approve a budget. The executive branch then spends a lot of money. When there are too many bills or other obligations to address compared to the taxes collected, the Treasury Department sells bonds to cover the difference, i.e. the deficit. Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it authorizes new borrowing to cover debts the government has already incurred by following the budget Congress and the president approved.

Ordinarily, Congress would simply vote for the debt limit to be increased. But things are not so simple these days. Congressional Republicans don’t believe in governing responsibly. They look for ways to make their Democratic colleagues and the government as a whole look bad. They then claim to be the ones who can fix the problems they’ve done so much to create.

Since the House of Representatives has already addressed the problem by a simple majority vote (218 Democrats voted Yes, 210 Republicans voted No), it’s now up to the Senate to finish the job.

In a more rational world, the 50 Democrats in the Senate could all vote Yes while the 50 Republicans voted No. Vice President Harris could then vote Yes and break the tie. Problem solved (for now).

But the Senate doesn’t have majority rule. It has the filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to do most of the Senate’s business, including raising the debt limit. Without the agreement of at least 10 Republicans, therefore, the 50 Senate Democrats can’t even bring the debt limit increase to a vote.

There are various ways the problem can be addressed before the U.S. government runs out of money and the global markets and the global economy take a dive.

The Treasury Department could mint a special coin and assign it a value of trillions of dollars. Depositing this coin at the Federal Reserve would mean the government suddenly had plenty of money. But it doesn’t look like anybody in authority likes this idea.

The Treasury Department could ignore the debt limit law, citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned”, which kind of means the government has to pay its bills. But again, this idea doesn’t have enough support.

A third option, of course, would be for the Republicans to allow the Democrats to proceed to a vote. But the Republicans say they won’t do that.

Instead, they say the Democrats should pursue a fourth option: use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation, which allows a majority in the Senate to pass budget-related legislation. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process. In fact, it’s the very complicated process the president and congressional Democrats are (very slowly) using to pass most of Biden’s agenda (the agenda that’s popular with the public but too expensive for two Democratic senators, one who’s actually a moderate Republican and one who’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma). 

Reuters explains what the Democrats would have to do in order to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit:

* The budget committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would have to write legislation enabling the debt limit to be raised. . . 

* The Senate Budget Committee likely would deadlock 11-11 if all 22 members were present, preventing Chairman Bernie Sanders from sending such a bill to the full Senate.

* The Senate’s Majority Leader could then make a move on the Senate floor to “discharge” the stuck legislation from the budget panel. There would be a maximum of four hours of debate and then the Senate would vote on whether to instruct Sanders to release the bill to the floor.

* The Senate could then start debate for a maximum of 20 hours. But it would be open to a potentially large number of amendments in a procedure that is known as a “vote-a-rama.” Amendments would have to be directly related to budgetary matters however. Vote-a-ramas are often all-night affairs.

* Following votes on amendments, the Senate could vote to approve the debt limit bill and could do so with a simple majority of 51 votes.

* The House also would have to go through the process of debating and passing the bill, also by simple majority.

* As all of this is unfolding, global financial markets could become unsettled as Oct. 18 nears and Washington flirts with a default. 

The reason Senate Republicans want the Democrats to use reconciliation for the debt limit is that it would interfere with using reconciliation to pass Biden’s big, popular agenda. That’s the whole reason.

Fortunately, there’s a fifth option. The 50 Senate Democrats could make an exception to the filibuster rule. That’s already been done for budget reconciliation and approving judicial appointments. Why not do it for the debt limit too? It shouldn’t require 10 extra votes in the Senate to allow the government to pay its credit card bills.

But those two Democratic senators (the moderate Republican and the mystery woman who now votes like one) think the filibuster rule is near sacred. They claim it brings the Democratic and Republican senators together in a wonderful spirit of compromise. Maybe it did once upon a time, and once in a while, but all it does now is allow a minority to control the Senate.

So when the Republican Minority Leader says the debt limit problem is for the Democrats to solve, since they control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, he might as well be speaking in tongues. The only way Democrats can control the Senate is to eliminate or change the filibuster rule, which so far isn’t happening. (While they’re at it, they should make a filibuster exception for voting rights too — that seems obvious but so far isn’t to all 50 of them).

Debt, Schmet

The Nobel Prize in economics that Prof. Paul Krugman won isn’t technically a Nobel Prize, since it’s not one of the prizes Alfred Nobel created back in 1905. Krugman’s “Nobel Prize” (not “Noble Prize”) was actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, established in 1968 by a donation from Sweden’s central bank to the Nobel Foundation.

Nonetheless, Krugman is very smart and knows a lot about economics. From his New York Times newsletter:

I get a lot of hate mail; in fact, I worry if a column doesn’t generate a big backlash, because it suggests that I may have been off my game. But it’s interesting to see what generates the most hate. In general, writing “Donald Trump is a terrible person” gets a sort of collective shrug…The real vitriol tends to come over monetary and fiscal policy.

In particular, I don’t think anything I’ve written has angered as many people as my declaration five years ago that debt is money we owe to ourselves — a point I naïvely imagined would be self-evident once people thought about it. But it turns out that challenging the notion that government borrowing imposes a burden on our children and grandchildren deeply offends many people, even though that notion makes very little sense.

So I don’t really expect people to be persuaded when I say that the response to Covid-19 is a near-perfect demonstration of my point. But let’s give it a try, anyway.

Here’s where we are right now. To contain the coronavirus, we’ve effectively shut down a significant part of the economy. Around 10 percent of U.S. workers are or were employed in “leisure and hospitality,” which has basically been locked down; even more are employed in retail trade, much of which has also been locked down.

For those of us still drawing a paycheck, this is annoying but not much more than that; I dream of coffee shops and concerts, but those aren’t necessities. For those who made a living by providing banned services, however, the lockdown is a financial catastrophe.

So we’re providing disaster relief on a huge scale: unemployment insurance, aid to small businesses and more. It’s still inadequate, and a lot of the money still isn’t making it to the people who need it most. But put that on one side, and ask: How are we paying for it?

The immediate answer is that the federal government is borrowing the money. New projections from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that federal debt, as a share of G.D.P., will be around 30 points higher by the end of next year than it was at the end of 2019.

But who will that money be owed to? The answer is, me — and people like me. That is, those who are still receiving more or less their normal incomes are spending less and saving more — yes, we’re buying more groceries and booze, but that’s vastly outweighed by reduced spending on restaurants and vacations. And those savings are, one way or another, being recycled via the federal government into aid for those less fortunate.

Some of the recycling is direct: My wife and I have, in fact, bought some U.S. government bonds. Most of it is indirect: You put more money in your bank account, the bank accumulates extra reserves in its account at the Federal Reserve, and the Fed buys government bonds. But the details aren’t especially important. At a fundamental level, the government is helping one group of Americans by borrowing from another group of Americans.

You might ask how the money will be repaid; actually, the odds are that it never will be repaid, which is OK but that’s a story for another time. There are also potential problems created by a high level of federal debt, although to be honest it’s unlikely that U.S. debt will be a real problem any time soon.

The key point for now, however, is that this debt-financed disaster relief isn’t coming at the expense of America’s future growth; it’s not making the country poorer, and it’s not cheating future generations. The debt we’re incurring now is money we owe to ourselves.


Krugman knows, of course, that some of America’s debt is owed to foreign countries, but it’s less than most people think.

As of this month, U.S. federal debt is $24 trillion. One quarter of that or $6 trillion is called “intragovernmental” debt. It’s money that’s owed by U.S. government agencies to other U.S. agencies. For example, the Social Security administration owns half of the $6 trillion (because Social Security invests its excess cash in U.S. government bonds).

The other $18 billion of U.S. debt is called “public” debt. Two-thirds of it or $12 trillion is owned by Americans, either individuals, companies or other entities. Foreigners own the other third or $6 trillion.

Krugman would be more precise, therefore, if he said that 75% of the government’s debt is money we owe ourselves. Foreigners are owed 25%.

For more on debt from Prof. Krugman:

America came out of World War II with huge debts — and experienced an unprecedented economic boom.

Britain emerged from World War II with debt of 270 percent of G.D.P. It never paid that debt off — but the ratio of debt to G.D.P. fell 80 percent over the next generation anyway.

Why We Owe What We Owe

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post discusses the national debt and why it’s wrong to blame Obama:

“If there’d been no Bush tax cuts, no wars, no financial crisis and everything else had been the same? Debt would be between 20 and 30 percent of GDP today, rather than almost 100 percent.”