The Mess in Detroit: A Stern Warning for the Whole Country

 

An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Detroit Ruling Lifts a Shield on Pensions”, reports a ruling by bankruptcy judge Steven W. Rhodes that Detroit “could formally enter bankruptcy and that Detroit’s obligations to pay pensions in full is not inviolable.”
The article goes on to say “that most here agree that the city’s situation is dire:  annual operating deficits since 2008, a pattern of new borrowing to pay for old borrowing, miserably diminished city services, and the earmarking of about 38 percent of tax revenues for debt service.  A city that was once the nation’s fourth largest has dropped to 18th, losing more than half of its population since 1950.  The city was once home to 1.8 million people but now has closer to 700,000.”
The parallels and analogies between what has happened in Detroit and what is now happening in the U.S. are striking.  The U.S. has had huge annual deficits for five years in a row and the accumulated debt is enormous, the Federal Reserve is holding interest rates down to make borrowing cheaper, and our country’s infrastructure is deteriorating much faster than it is being repaired.
Right now interest on the national debt is small ($223 billion in 2013, or 8% of federal revenues).  But interest rates will inevitably return before long to their average historical rate of about 5%.  Right now the public debt (on which we pay interest) is just over $12 trillion.  This means that in the near future interest on the national debt will be at least $600 billion per year and probably much larger because the debt is still growing so rapidly.  This will take a huge bite out of revenue and leave far less of it for other purposes.
This problem will continue to exist even if the budget were to be miraculously balanced from now on but it would at least lessen over time as the economy continues to grow.  Without budget restraint the problem will never go away and will be a perpetual drag on our national welfare.
This is, of course, exactly the condition in which Detroit finds itself at the present time.  Detroit has the option to declare bankruptcy and make its creditors and pensioners take big losses.  Once it does this it can make a fresh start and perhaps recover its former status.
But are we prepared to let the whole country suffer a similar fate?  The consequences would be enormous.  If the U.S. goes down, the whole western world could come down with it.  Democracy and human progress would be severely threatened.  This is really too terrible a tragedy to even contemplate.  Let’s turn things around before they get any worse!

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