Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Federal Debt Approaches 100% of GDP

Even when The End of the American Century went to press in early 2008, the U.S. federal debt was reaching alarming levels, and was a central element of my forecasts of U.S. economic decline. At that point, the White House's Office of Management and Budget projected the gross federal debt to expand to $10.6 trillion by 2009, constituting 72% of GDP.

Since then, the federal red ink has become a tidal wave. The OMB now expects the debt at the end of this year to be $12.7 trillion, and to expand to over $15 trillion by 2011, which would then be (at 97% of GDP) almost as large as the entire economy (see chart).

David Leonhardt of the New York Times, one of the few economists to have been tracking and raising concerns about the deficits, writes that erasing the deficits "will be one of the great political issues of the coming decade." In his article "Sea of Red Ink" in the June 10 issue, he reports on a New York Times analysis of the composition of the debt accumulation over the last decade, "with the aim of understanding how the federal government came to be far deeper in debt than it has been since the years just after World War II."

The analysis finds that the growth in the federal debt since 2001 comes from four main sources. The first, the business cycle (especially the 2001 recession and the current downturn) is the largest component, accounting for 37%. Another 33% of the recent debt comes from legislation signed by President Bush, including his tax cuts. Another 20% derives from President Obama's continuation of several Bush policies, including spending on the Iraq War and the Wall Street bailouts. Only about 10% comes from new Obama policies, including the stimulus bill, and news spending on health care, education, energy and other areas.

Leonhardt sees little hope that the Obama administration can reduce or eliminate the deficits with "pay-as-you-go" government spending plans. The solution, he writes, "is no mystery" and involves inevitable tax increases and government spending cuts. These are political tinderboxes, of course, and pose a huge challenge to President Obama's leadership skills.

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