By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
If the $20 trillion national debt concerns you, what about $217 trillion?
That’s how much public and private debt now exists worldwide, says the Institute of International Finance, a worldwide financial industry association. That’s the equivalent of more than $29,000 for every human – and this despite 71 percent of Earth’s population living on $10 or less per day, according to the Pew Research Center.
The $217 trillion is a record, with the increase over last year driven by developing nations, including China, where the IIF says total debt now equals $33 trillion. Advanced economies actually reduced their debt in the past year by $2 trillion, but developing countries increased theirs by $3 trillion.
Not that Americans aren’t doing their part to add to the total. In the United States, the $20 trillion national debt equals almost $61,000 for every American – and that’s only what the federal government owes. Arkansas, whose Revenue Stabilization Act supposedly guarantees a “balanced budget,” still owes billions for bond repayments, retirement benefits and other expenses. Student loan debt in the United States now equals $1.3 trillion, meaning Americans owe more for their educations (or uncompleted ones) than they owe to their credit card companies – which, by the way, has risen to more than $1 trillion, the most since the recession in 2008. It seems that, as in parts of the developing world, debt not only creates wealth, but wealth also creates debt.
Global debt is a topic slightly above my pay grade, but I do understand Proverbs 22:7: “The borrower is slave to the lender.” I also understand gravity. What goes up must eventually come down. We should be wary when borrowers owe lenders and lenders owe other borrowers who owe other lenders – on a global scale. What happens to this house of cards when someone really important starts doubting they’ll get their money back, and acts in their own self-interest?
Here’s where conspiracy theorists might say this all has been orchestrated by some mysterious “they” bent on world domination. In reality, global systems and technologies are evolving so rapidly and so expansively that no one could have planned it all, no one can understand it all, and no one can control it. In many ways, the world has changed more in the past 150 years than it did in the previous 1,000. And yet we’re all walking around with brains the same size as our great-great-grandparents’, with the same basic needs and fears. Humans, whether American, Chinese or Bangladeshi, want what they don’t have, so systems are developing that will feed that need, the result being $217 trillion in worldwide debt, with consequences that can’t be prepared for.
You and I can’t do anything about China’s debt or even the $20 trillion the U.S. government owes except vote for fiscally responsible candidates, if we can find them. What we can do is limit our part of the $217 trillion by living off our bank accounts rather than our credit cards, by buying the homes we need instead of treating them as “investments,” by seeing cars as merely a necessary mode of transportation and not a status symbol, and by obtaining educations that pays dividends, not simply going off to college without a plan because it’s the next thing to do after high school.
Having less debt, or no debt, would be the best insurance policy in case this entire worldwide system eventually undergoes a correction.
It might even lead to more responsible policymaking by our elected officials. It’s not a coincidence that Americans owe, and so does our government. In a representative democracy, we not only get the government we deserve, but, ultimately, the government that we are.