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Making Sense of the National Debt Numbers
I thought that Professor Thomas Grennes’ recent “Danger Ahead” essay on the fast-growing U.S. national debt was very timely and made good sense, but I think that including more numbers in such essays would make them more useful and effective, especially if expressed on a per capita basis.
The article did not give the total national debt or what it amounts to per person, which average people might relate to and quite possibly be alarmed by. Taking the U.S. debt in 2019 as $23 trillion and population as 328 million, the debt amounts to about $70,000 per man, woman and child. That per capita statistic certainly got my attention! Impersonal statistics such as the 102% debt-to-GDP ratio cited in the article don’t mean much to many people outside of economics, who don’t know whether that is a good or bad number, or who have been convinced that debt doesn’t matter.
Grennes’ concerns about the U.S. national debt motivated me to look up figures for Greece at the time of its government debt crisis beginning in 2007. The Greek debt was around $30,000 for every Greek man, woman and child, less than one-half of our current debt. The Greek debt-to-GDP ratio went from a ratio like our current 102% to an unsustainable value of more than 120% in just a few years.
A proposed $1.9 trillion “stimulus” would amount to about $6,000 for each man, woman and child, per capita numbers I’ve not seen mentioned in any reporting on the topic. The dollars-per-person number raises questions such as where the heck is the bulk of the stimulus money going—obviously not thousand-dollar checks to selected individuals—and do we really want to increase the national debt burden on every man, woman and child by nearly 10%?
I think that failing to frame big dollar amounts in per capita terms is to a considerable extent responsible for the U.S. government debt crisis that Grennes foresees.
–Bob, Chicago, Ill.
A Response from Prof. Grennes
I agree that federal government data expressed as billions or trillions of dollars are not very meaningful to most readers. Converting the absolute values to per capita terms is probably a useful transformation for many purposes.
However, for government debt, per capita debt alone would suffer from a serious omission. The size of an economy is important for debt service capacity, and a larger economy can service more debt. Thus, if the United States and a much smaller economy had the same government debt per capita, the implications would be quite different. Expressing debt in terms of GDP incorporates the economic size dimension.
Private debt is another important variable. Recent econometric work I have done with Mehmet Caner (of North Carolina State University) and Michael Fan (of the Chinese University of Hong Kong) demonstrates the importance of the interaction between private and public debt in influencing economic growth. Some private debts are guaranteed by the federal government, and the Federal Reserve has increasingly traded private mortgage-backed securities and other private bonds. There is also evidence that government assistance to weak borrowers (“zombies”), who would otherwise fail, has led to the increasing importance of zombie debt.
— Thomas Grennes, contributor
Gun Culture Through the Lens of Anthropology
Dr. David Yamane’s “Gun Culture 2.0 and the Great Gun-Buying Spree of 2020” is not just a solid sociological study, but it also falls within the anthropological tradition of participant-observer. As someone trained in the anthropological tradition, I often see observer-participants who fail to clearly understand the worldview of the observed community, or who fail to see beyond their academic framework, and hence misunderstand what is actually going on in the observed community. Yamane has avoided this trap, while also explaining what he observes in terms that both academics and members of other communities can clearly understand. Given the heat, as opposed to light, that this subject engenders, this is no mean feat. I look forward to reading further on his research.
— John, Peru, Ind.
What About Inequality Among Nations?
Martin Gurri’s recent piece analyses the question of whether inequality is unjust within a national frame—or, if you will, within a nationalism framework. There are no national boundaries in evaluating the question of inequality. But since he assumes a national framework, he totally avoids dealing with the inequality between citizens and noncitizens, those with passports and those without the “appropriate” papers. And, of course, the author refuses to deal with inequalities between nations, the peoples of various nations. As an American who values the principle of equality, should I not be concerned with the inequalities of Americans and Nicaraguans? If not, why not? Should I not be equally concerned with those dying from COVID in India and those in the United States? The author deals with all of the aforementioned by not dealing with them.
— Barry, Palm Desert, Calif.
Martin Gurri, National Unity and COVID Vaccines
Having just discovered your publication and after reading two of Mr. Gurri’s articles, I decided to submit a short letter.
I found his articles to be enjoyable and informative, and they caused me to rethink my positions on some points he covered. I agreed with some and disagreed with others.
I would like to see his thoughts now on unity and COVID vaccinations if he cares to address those again after a month of the new administration. Whatever credit Biden gets for Americans getting vaccinated in the future should be no more than Trump gets for pushing vaccine development in unprecedented time. Without Trump’s leadership, Biden would still have no vaccine to “sell” to the public.
— Herschel, Miss.
Learning How to Talk About Politics
I appreciated the interview with Danielle Allen. Her discussion affirms the art of conversing and being with others to address public matters. This is a civic capacity or literacy that needs to be nurtured. In the curriculum most students experience, it is in English and especially writing/rhetoric/composition courses that this capacity is specifically addressed. Allen has noted in her book Talking to Strangers the importance of developing “good rhetoric,” a value that those such as the late Wayne Booth esteemed as an educational and civic goal. Regrettably, those teachers who are committed to such courses are those less esteemed, especially in higher education.
— George, Portland, Ore.