Easing the Pain of the Economic Debt Crisis

After many years of overeating (overspending), Greece is in the emergency room with a major financial heart attack. The doctors (IMF, European finance ministers, the ECB, etc.) are running around trying to save it. Open heart surgery (loans guaranteed by others) has averted the immediate crisis, but Greece is just as overweight today as it was before the crisis. Attempts to lose weight through exercise (austerity measures) cause serious chest pains (riots). The doctors don't want to admit it, but all signs point to a heart transplant (default) as the only way to get Greece onto its feet again.

Greece isn't the only one. It is a veritable epidemic. Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and a host of other countries are having chest pains. Iceland is feeling better now with its freshly transplanted heart. The American home owner is still in the hospital from his financial heart attack after gobbling up vast quantities of real estate, and it has been many decades since Uncle Sam last could see his toes.

By most accounts (e.g. here or Bill Gross' statements in a recent interview), total hidden government liabilities add up to about $60-$100 trillion. That is on top of the $14 trillion of debt carried on the balance sheet. Adding up those liabilities, the US owes at least five times GDP, which currently sits at about $15 trillion. For comparison, Greece's debt is about 1.5 times its GDP.

This is not really a fair comparison, because it leaves out any hidden liabilities Greece may have. The US debt figure includes unfunded entitlements, state and local debt, and underfunded public pensions. Nevertheless, it is clear that this is an unsustainable debt load even if the estimates turn out to be off by a factor of two or four.

Uncle Sam is already more overweight than Greece ever was. If he doesn't change his ways, he will end up in the hospital like Greece, but at present he is partying like there is no tomorrow, gorging himself on entitlement spending, costly wars, bailouts, subsidies, and countless other delicacies.

Perhaps it would not be such a bad thing if the talks about raising the debt limit failed. After Uncle Sam suffers the resulting self-inflicted mild heart attack (temporary default) and finds out how much fun it is to fetch up in the emergency room, he might be more inclined to take care of himself, slim down, and stick with an exercise regime.

Some kind of a wakeup call is necessary while there is still time to deal with our debt problem. The only way to address it is for Washington to do its job: get everybody to recognize that there is a problem, find a solution that demands some sacrifices from everyone, and work together across party lines to implement it. In the current political environment that does not seem to be possible. Something needs to change the environment. Greece shows that the alternative is not pretty.

About the author

Marc Schindler, CFP®
Marc Schindler, CFP®

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