At a recycling drive in Brooklyn, Chinese goods piled up.
Debt, to most of us, is something you pay. But to creditors, it's also something you sell. Mortgage agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac issue so-called mortgage-backed securities to investors — including, notably, China. Roughly put, we buy tons of Chinese goods, and the Chinese loan us the money back through securities so we can buy more.
The numbers involved here are enormous, billions mounting into trillions. Brad Setser, an economist with the Council on Foreign Relations, has spent the last years obsessively researching China's buying of American debt.
What scares him is the idea that China would stop buying the debt — meaning it would stop financing American mortgages and our general standard of living. An extra jolt: Setser says the Chinese can't go on buying this way forever.
He explained this all to us in a way I could almost completely understand. It's so good, I'm going to listen twice (click above or download).