Of Federal Deficits And Debt

Sometimes it seems like everyone's talking about the federal deficits and debt right now though there isn't widespread agreement on what to do about them.

Turns out, a lot of people don't even know the difference between the two, according to Joe Minarik, a budget expert who worked in the Clinton Administration and now is with the centrist Committee for Economic Development.

An excerpt of a conversation Minarik had with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep Monday.

MINARIK: It's very clear that a lot of people don't understand it. I've been in meetings on Capitol Hill when people have used the terms interchangeably.

STEVE: Sorry, on Capitol Hill where they do the budget?

MINARIK: Yeah. It happens.

A federal deficit is what the federal government spends each year above and beyond its revenues from taxes. That amount is about $1.3 trillion this year.

The national debt is the total amount the nation owes to its creditors, is about $13.8 trillion with about $9.2 billion owed to the public and the balance to the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

And Minarik explains, "budget wonks" start getting worried that the U.S. could become, say Greece or Ireland, when the debt to gross domestic product ratio gets to 60 percent or more. It's an estimated 63 percent or so now.

STEVE: Is there anyway when you look at a trillion dollar federal deficit like we have now to say some of that is good debt, that we're getting lasting value, it's an investment, and some of it is bad debt? Can you divide it up that way at all?

MINARIK: Imagine that the money that you charged on your credit card that you can't pay this month was to pay the roofer because there was a hole in the roof and water was coming in.

STEVE: OK.

MINARIK: You paid him because the water was going to do a lot more damage than the cost of fixing the roof right now. So, yes, you ran a deficit. It may take five years to pay it. But in the end, you avoided a worst consequence.

Many economists generally see deficit spending during a recession with high unemployment and shattered consumer confidence as the equivalent of putting the roof repair on that credit card.

Minarik makes the key point that has been made frequently lately that neither tax cuts or spending cuts in isolation will significantly bend the curve on the national debt. It's going to take both.

It's a useful discussion that even some people on Capitol Hill might glean something from.

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