As has become our custom, the United States is approaching another fight over the debt limit. Since March 16, the government has resorted to extraordinary measures to finance itself temporarily while the GOP congressional leadership dreams up the concessions it will demand before it agrees to raise the limit and prevent a government shutdown. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the crisis is due to arrive in October or November.
The debt limit is an anachronistic holdover from the days of the gold standard, and it survives only because it makes political blackmail so easy. But pundits across the political spectrum act as though it were a matter of dire national importance. According to Fix the Debt, a bipartisan coalition of former politicians, business executives and “citizen-leaders in all 50 states,” the debt limit is one of several upcoming “fiscal speed bumps” that “policymakers should use” as an “opportunity to pursue responsible changes that result in better policy,” namely, reducing the national debt, which is said to have grown far too big. How big? Stephen Moore of The National Review recently tried to put the $18 trillion national debt in perspective: “That’s $18,000,000,000,000. We all know that $18 million is a lot of money. This is $18 million times another million. The number is so gigantic, we won’t or can’t try to fathom it.”
Because we’re used to dealing with everyday amounts of money, $18 trillion sounds like a huge amount of debt. But simply reciting the number again and again does nothing to help us make sense of its size. In order to do that, we need to compare it with something. Consider: Corinthian 15 debt striker Tasha Courtright’s $96,000 for-profit college education has left her with an unmanageable debt burden, while megabank JPMorgan Chase posted more than $2 billion in outstanding liabilities (debt) at the end of last year. Objectively, Courtright has less total debt than JPMorgan. So why is the college student underwater while the bankers are on a yacht?
This apparent paradox has a simple solution. To get a sense of the real burden of someone’s debt, compare it with that person’s assets. Every economic actor — whether an individual, a business, a municipality or a country — is in principle capable of keeping an account of its assets and liabilities. If, like JPMorgan, you have a big number in your asset column, you can handle a big number in your liabilities column. If, like Courtright, your asset figure is very low because you earn little and own practically nothing, even a small number in the liabilities column can crush you.
The U.S. federal government is the largest asset holder in the world. It owns 900,000 buildings and structures as well as 41 million acres of land, much of it rich in minerals. Its asset portfolio includes 4 million miles of public roads, 12,000 miles of commercial inland water channels and 650 dams. Estimating the full value of these assets is difficult, but Thomas Piketty and Gabriel Zucman put the figure at $17 trillion in 2010. When comparing assets and debt liabilities, it’s necessary to count only real debts. About 30 percent of the official federal debt is held by the government, with about half of that held by the Federal Reserve, which remits interest paid on its holdings right to the treasury. These intragovernmental debts help facilitate monetary policy and create accounting placeholders for programs like Social Security, but they are otherwise meaningless. When you exclude this debt that the federal government owes itself, the value of public assets in the U.S. exceeded public debt by nearly $3 trillion in 2010. In fact, since the founding of the country, the U.S. government has never had a negative net worth.
Of course, there is a fundamental difference between the federal government and a person or a business. The government can print dollars, so it will never actually run out of the money it needs to service its debt. But even if it could go broke, the government’s asset-liability ratio would make it far more like a wealthy bank with manageable debts than a poor person skirting bankruptcy. So next time politicians refuse to raise the debt limit unless poor and working-class people concede even more, remember: $18 trillion is not such a big number when you compare it with a bigger number.