America might have too much debt for its system to cope with.
No, not the financial system. Sure, at $16.7 trillion, the US government has a lot of debt. But despite what you might hear, America is not bankrupt, any more than a homeowner with a mortgage is bankrupt. In fact, thanks to healthy buying from Japan, China and the US Federal Reserve—not to mention a worldwide scramble by investors in search of safe places to put money—the US can easily and cheaply borrow any money it needs to meet its obligations.
No, the system we’re talking about is not the financial system—it’s the democratic system. Maybe America’s awesome ability to take on debt is actually weakening the country’s willingness to pay it back. And maybe that’s why the nation’s hard-won reputation as a near-pristine borrower is starting to crumble in what may be an unsettling new chapter of America’s 223-year relationship with government debt.
Ability and willingness
First things first. A country’s reputation as a borrower is largely built on two things: ability to pay debts, and willingness to pay.
As we said above, the US has the ability to pay. But willingness? That’s a political issue.
Defaults by countries that were perfectly able to pay their debts have a long and rich history. A study of almost 170 government defaults dating back to the Napoleonic era showed almost 40% took place when economic growth was strong. That suggests that at least some were driven by politics rather than economics. “Many of these seemingly inexcusable defaults occurred when political upheavals brought new coalitions to power that favored default for opportunistic or ideological reasons,” the authors of the paper wrote.
There’s been just such an upheaval in the US, where a hardline Republican coalition—the Tea Party—gained influence after Barack Obama’s 2008 election. Brinkmanship driven by the Tea Partiers has repeatedly pushed the US closer to default than many would have ever thought possible. The last showdown, in the summer of 2011, prompted rating agency Standard & Poor’s to strip the US of its AAA rating. Fitch threatened to do the same this week, just before Republican leaders relented and allowed Congress to push through a bill to raise the debt ceiling and reopen the government.
For the record it’s only a small—albeit vocal—minority of Americans who don’t seem to recognize the obligation to repay debts the US has incurred throughout its history. When the Pew Research Center queried people during the US debt fight in the summer of 2011, some 23% of respondents said lawmakers who shared their political views—whatever those were—shouldn’t cave into pressure from the other side, even if it meant defaulting on the debt. A separate set of polling on attitudes toward default seems to put levels of support for default somewhere between 10% and 20%.
But with or without public support, the US seems to have embarked on a new path in its fiscal history that seem to threaten its cherished reputation as a borrower. “The repeated brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling … dents confidence in the effectiveness of the U.S. government and political institutions, and in the coherence and credibility of economic policy,” wrote analysts with Fitch.
How did we get here? To figure that out, we have to take a look at America’s history as a debtor.