Living Beyond Our Means: 3 Charts That Prove That We Are In The Biggest Debt Bubble
Do you want to see something truly frightening? Just check out the 3 charts posted further down in this article.
These charts prove that we are now in the biggest debt bubble in the history of the world.
As Americans have enjoyed an incredibly wonderful standard of living over the past three decades, most of them have believed that it was because we are the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on the planet with economic and financial systems that are second to none.
But that is not even close to accurate.
The reason why we have had an almost unbelievably high standard of living over the past three decades is because we have piled up the biggest mountains of debt in the history of the world.
Once upon a time the United States was the wealthiest country on the planet, but all of that prosperity was not good enough for us.
So we started borrowing and borrowing and borrowing and we have now been living beyond our means for so long that we consider it to be completely normal.
We have been robbing future generations blind for so long that it doesn’t even seem to bother most people anymore. We have become accustomed to living in debt. We go into massive amounts of debt to get an education, we go into massive amounts of debt to buy a home, we go into massive amounts of debt to buy our cars, and we even pile up debt to buy holiday gifts and to purchase groceries.
Just check out the chart posted below. It shows the total credit market debt owed in the United States. In other words, it is a measure of what everyone owes (government, businesses and consumers).
30 years ago, total credit market debt owed was less than 5 trillion dollars. Today, it is over 50 trillion dollars. Total credit market debt is now at a level equivalent to about 360 percent of GDP. This is what has been fueling the great era of “economic prosperity” that we have been experiencing….
So what is the answer to this problem?
The truth is that there is not an easy answer under our current system. The only way that the U.S. economy continues to “grow” is if the debt bubble continues to “expand”.
If our leaders allowed the debt bubble to “pop” and the U.S. economy went into a deleveraging cycle, it would mean that we would start living far below our means for an extended period of time and it would spawn a deflationary depression that would make the Great Depression look like a Sunday picnic.
Most Americans are in no mood to take that kind of hard medicine.
Do you really think that the American people are going to vote in politicians who tell them that it is time to live below our means and that we are going to have to experience a standard of living far below what our parents experienced in order to pay for all the debt that they racked up?
No, that is clearly a dog that isn’t going to hunt.
The American people want to hear that better times are ahead.
One way to give the American people “better times”, for the short-term at least, is to crank the debt spiral back up.
By introducing another huge flood of paper money into the economy, the Federal Reserve and the U.S. government are hoping that banks will start lending again and that U.S. consumers will start going into more debt again. Already, as you can see from the chart below, U.S. household debt has started to sink just a little bit. But considering the fact that approximately 70 percent of our GDP is generated by U.S. consumer spending, that is not good news for “economic growth” statistics.
Three decades of “economic expansion” have been fueled by consumer debt that has spiralled completely out of control. Over the past 30 years, total U.S. household debt has gone from less than 2 trillion dollars to almost 14 trillion dollars….
So where did the housing bubble come from? It came from Americans going into insane amounts of debt that they could not afford. The truth is that only the top 5 percent of all U.S. households have earned enough additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.
Not only that, but Americans are going into staggering amounts of debt in order to pay for their educations. Total student loan debt in the United States is climbing at a rate of approximately $2,853.88 per second, and today Americans owe an all-time record of more than $849 billion on student loans, which is actually more than the total amount that Americans owe on their credit cards.
The truth is that American families are stretched thinner financially than they ever have been in the post-World War 2 era. According to a poll taken last year, 61 percent of Americans “always or usually” live paycheck to paycheck. That was up significantly from 49 percent in 2008 and 43 percent in 2007.
Many Americans have come to the absolute breaking point. 1.41 million Americans filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009 – a 32 percent increase over 2008.
But remember, approximately 70 percent of our GDP is generated by U.S. consumer spending, so without more consumer spending there won’t be more economic growth.
So, instead of Obama and the Federal Reserve encouraging Americans to get out of debt and to save money, they are trying to get the American people to spend even more money and to go into even more debt because they desperately need positive “economic growth” figures.
The worst offender of all when it comes to debt, of course, is the U.S. federal government. Over the last 30 years, the U.S. national debt has gone from about 1 trillion dollars to almost 14 trillion dollars….
This is the largest single debt in the history of the world.
So just how big is one trillion dollars?
If right this moment you went out and started spending one dollar every single second, it would take you more than 31,000 years to spend one trillion dollars.
Yet somehow the U.S. government has accumulated a debt that is well over 13 trillion dollars.
Unfortunately, it keeps getting worse month after month after month.
According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. national debt is rapidly closing in on 14 trillion dollars and and will climb to an estimated $19.6 trillion by 2015.
Should we all throw a big party when it crosses the 20 trillion dollar mark?
I can just hear the theme song now….
“I’m going to party like I’m 19.99 trillion in debt!”
But the cold, hard reality is that we are in far, far more trouble than what the official government numbers tell us.
In a recent article, Boston University economics professor Laurence J. Kotlikoff analyzed the financial condition of the U.S. government, and he summarized the horror we are facing by making the following statement….
“Let’s get real. The U.S. is bankrupt.”
After carefully going over Congressional Budget Office data, Kotlikoff came to the conclusion that the U.S. government is now facing a “fiscal gap” of $202 trillion dollars.
Now how in the world did that happen?
Well, it turns out that we have made promises to future generations that we cannot possibly even come close to keeping.
Social Security and Medicare are fiscal nightmares that are far more immense than anything that U.S. government has ever faced before.
According to an official U.S. government report, rapidly growing interest costs on the U.S. national debt together with spending on major entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare will absorb approximately 92 cents of every dollar of federal revenue by the year 2019. That is before a single penny is spent on anything else.
That is just 9 years away.
When people speak of the financial situation of the U.S. government being “unsustainable”, they aren’t kidding around.
The truth is that the U.S. government has been running gigantic Ponzi schemes which are about to collapse.
Take the Social Security shell game for example. Back in 1950, each retiree’s Social Security benefit was paid for by approximately 16 workers. Today, each retiree’s Social Security benefit is paid for by approximately 3.3 workers. By 2025, it is projected that there will be approximately two workers for each retiree.
So exactly how is that supposed to work?
For much more on the coming Social Security nightmare, please see an article that I posted earlier this year: 22 Statistics About America’s Coming Pension Crisis That Will Make You Lose Sleep At Night.
Sadly, Professor Kotlikoff is not exaggerating in the least when he proclaims that the U.S. government is bankrupt.
At our current pace, the Congressional Budget Office is projecting that U.S. government public debt will hit 716 percent of GDP by the year 2080.
Public debt at a level of 100 percent of GDP is supposed to be an absolute nightmare scenario.
Needless to say, the whole thing is going to come crashing down long, long before we ever get to 2080.
We have been living far, far beyond our means for decades, and it has been the greatest party in the history of the world.
But it is time to turn out the lights because the party is over.
The Perfect Storm
by Robert Reich
It’s a perfect storm. And I’m not talking about the impending dangers facing Democrats. I’m talking about the dangers facing our democracy.
First, income in America is now more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 80 years. Almost a quarter of total income generated in the United States is going to the top 1 percent of Americans.
The top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us.
Who are these people? With the exception of a few entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, they’re top executives of big corporations and Wall Street, hedge-fund managers, and private equity managers. They include the Koch brothers, whose wealth increased by billions last year, and who are now funding tea party candidates across the nation.
Which gets us to the second part of the perfect storm. A relatively few Americans are buying our democracy as never before. And they’re doing it completely in secret.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into advertisements for and against candidates — without a trace of where the dollars are coming from. They’re laundered through a handful of groups. Fred Maleck, whom you may remember as deputy director of Richard Nixon’s notorious Committee to Reelect the President (dubbed Creep in the Watergate scandal), is running one of them. Republican operative Karl Rove runs another. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a third.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission made it possible. The Federal Election Commission says only 32 percent of groups paying for election ads are disclosing the names of their donors. By comparison, in the 2006 midterm, 97 percent disclosed; in 2008, almost half disclosed.
We’re back to the late 19th century when the lackeys of robber barons literally deposited sacks of cash on the desks of friendly legislators. The public never knew who was bribing whom.
Just before it recessed the House passed a bill that would require that the names of all such donors be publicly disclosed. But it couldn’t get through the Senate. Every Republican voted against it. (To see how far the GOP has come, nearly ten years ago campaign disclosure was supported by 48 of 54 Republican senators.)
Here’s the third part of the perfect storm. Most Americans are in trouble. Their jobs, incomes, savings, and even homes are on the line. They need a government that’s working for them, not for the privileged and the powerful.
Yet their state and local taxes are rising. And their services are being cut. Teachers and firefighters are being laid off. The roads and bridges they count on are crumbling, pipelines are leaking, schools are dilapidated, and public libraries are being shut.
There’s no jobs bill to speak of. No WPA to hire those who can’t find jobs in the private sector. Unemployment insurance doesn’t reach half of the unemployed.
Washington says nothing can be done. There’s no money left.
No money? The marginal income tax rate on the very rich is the lowest it’s been in more than 80 years. Under President Dwight Eisenhower (who no one would have accused of being a radical) it was 91 percent. Now it’s 36 percent. Congress is even fighting over whether to end the temporary Bush tax cut for the rich and return them to the Clinton top tax of 39 percent.
Much of the income of the highest earners is treated as capital gains, anyway — subject to a 15 percent tax. The typical hedge-fund and private-equity manager paid only 17 percent last year. Their earnings were not exactly modest. The top 15 hedge-fund managers earned an average of $1 billion.
Congress won’t even return to the estate tax in place during the Clinton administration – which applied only to those in the top 2 percent of incomes.
It won’t limit the tax deductions of the very rich, which include interest payments on multi-million dollar mortgages. (Yet Wall Street refuses to allow homeowners who can’t meet mortgage payments to include their primary residence in personal bankruptcy.)
There’s plenty of money to help stranded Americans, just not the political will to raise it. And at the rate secret money is flooding our political system, even less political will in the future.
The perfect storm: An unprecedented concentration of income and wealth at the top; a record amount of secret money flooding our democracy; and a public becoming increasingly angry and cynical about a government that’s raising its taxes, reducing its services, and unable to get it back to work.
We’re losing our democracy to a different system. It’s called plutocracy.
© 2010 Robert Reich
Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written twelve books, including The Work of Nations, Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His “Marketplace” commentaries can be found on publicradio.com and iTunes.