Jim Grant’s estimate that Americans each owe $42,998 has whipped up the liberal blogosphere into a fury not seen since conservative economists began picking apart Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Here, Cato Institute scholar Chris Edwards defends Grant’s estimate, and says that it may be too low.
A Time article by James Grant warning about rising federal debt has prompted pushback by columnists questioning whether debt is really so bad. At the Washington Post, Wonkblog columnist Matt O’Brien says “there’s no reason to cut the debt today.” Fellow Wonkblog columnist Max Ehrenfreund suggests that Grant’s figure of $42,998 government debt per person overstates the problem.
O’Brien suggests that the only reason to fear debt would be if it was leading to a financial crisis, but it isn’t because interest rates are low. But O’Brien neglects to mention that interest rates may rise substantially in coming years. CBO projects that as rates rise, federal interest costs will triple from $253 billion this year to $839 billion by 2026.
As for Ehrenfreund, he is right that $42,998 overstates the debt problem because it does not take into account our future rising population. At the same, however, $42,998 understatesthe problem because each year the government adds more debt. Over the next 10 years, the U.S. population will grow 8 percent, but the CBO says federal debt will rise 69 percent. So Grant’s simple debt metric will increase over time.
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