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Thoughts in Charts: We Will Pay for This

Source: Congressional Budget Office

This week’s graph is a bit of a bummer, so if you are having a “rainbows and butterflies” type of day, maybe just skip it. The chart is the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) projection of the national debt as a percentage of output if we don’t make any changes to current taxes and spending. We are already at World War II levels, and the projected uptick is steep.

There is a solid argument out there that says that the national debt really doesn’t matter that much. I tend to agree with a lot of that – to a point. I also believe that there is a level at which it very much will matter. I buy into the CBO’s statement that:

“High and rising federal debt makes the economy more vulnerable to rising interest rates and, depending on how that debt is financed, rising inflation. The growing debt burden also raises borrowing costs, slowing the growth of the economy and national income, and it increases the risk of a fiscal crisis or a gradual decline in the value of Treasury securities.” 1

The good news is that this is a ratio. If Gross Domestic Product (the denominator) goes up, then the overall percentage goes down. If we produce more than anticipated, it may not look quite so bad down the road.

Will we reach a point where changes will be required? As I look at this chart’s big picture, I think we will eventually have to face the spending and revenue numerator in this ratio. Yes, I mean changes to both government spending and taxes. I warned you that this wasn’t a feel-good read.

At some point, it seems likely that this level of debt will matter enough that we need to act. That being said, there are a lot of variables at play. If you’d like to dig in and find out what drives this projected ratio, “The 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook” is very readable – plus, it has a lot of great charts!

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1 Congressional Budget Office. “The 2020 Long-Term Budget Outlook.” PDF file. September 21, 2020. https://www.cbo.gov/system/files/2020-09/56516-LTBO.pdf