By Ryan C. Wood
As of the writing of this article our national debt is approximately $17.94 trillion dollars. This number does not include debt owed by states, counties or municipalities that have issued bonds year after year to pay for local and state programs. Scared yet? The national debt owed by the federal government only is approximately $56,600 per person living in the United States assuming there are about 317 million people living in the United States. Did you know you owed that much debt? Of course not all of the 317 million people living in the United States pays taxes though, so each taxpayer owes about $65,500 when taking into account the more than 43 million Americans that do not pay any taxes; and the number is rising. The point here is to compare the United States federal government to a business or individual that carries a large amount of debt as compared to its yearly income, expenses and assets to try and answer the question, “Should the government sell assets to pay off the national debt?”
Is the United States in danger of defaulting on its debt?
The answer is a most decidedly no. There is always other people’s money (taxpayers) to pay taxes to increase tax revenue. Anyone who believes the United States is in danger of default is mistaken. But how much debt does our government have as compared to income? For starters we need to look at the gross domestic product (GDP) and not the gross national product. It is my opinion that the gross domestic product is more comparable to our daily life and how we earn money and spend it. Think of the GDP for the United States as your yearly income for your household. The United States Department of Commerce estimates the GDP for 2014 is about $17.40 trillion. So we as a nation have $17.94 trillion in debt and bring in $17.40 trillion in income each year. Do you believe an individual living in the United States can make monthly payments on $17,000 in debts while earning only $17,000 a year? I can tell you absolutely no. So our national debt is now as of 2014 a little over 100% of the GDP. For a comparison, according to TradingEconomics.com, in 2008 our national debt was 64% of the GDP. In comparison then, in 2008 our example person earning $17,000 a year only had about $10,800 in total debts. It still seems high, but more manageable? The main difference between our government and the person earning $17,000 a year is the government can just borrow money indefinitely as Congress raises the debt limits. An individual at some point will not be extended any more credit and if their income does not increase it is only a matter of time before they are choosing whether to eat or pay monthly debt payments. Also as our national economy grows our government should be able to continue to make the payments for the national debt. The problem is the amount of interest we pay as taxpayers is eating into the taxes that should be spent to maintain and improve our national infrastructure and services to taxpayers. The deferred maintenance that is obvious across our country is a staggering amount of money. We as a nation are seemingly just treading water. How long until we drown?
Can the federal government sell assets?
Absolutely yes. The best example that may hit home for you is when the government closed many military bases across the United States in the 1990’s. More or less any land or asset that is determined to be not needed by the government or better suited for private use can be offered for sale to private entities. You may also have read about government auctions of government assets and are considered surplus in your local paper or on the internet. There are of course laws against selling land or asets to certain organizations that may threaten national security. The unfortunate events of 9/11 have made the laws even more restrictive. It is possible to sell U.S. owned assets and there seems to be little time spent determining what public assets are suitable for private use to raise money to ease the burden on taxpayers by paying down the national debt.
How do individual and businesses evaluate and treat their assets?
As a bankruptcy attorney, I have probably been personally involved in over 2,000 bankruptcy cases as either the attorney of record, helped administer the bankruptcy case or supervised the attorney of record that filed the case. I can tell you individuals and businesses are on top of how they use their assets. Most people and businesses that file for bankruptcy protection have already liquidated their assets that have any value. That includes jewelry, household goods, supplies, inventory and even their clothing. Some are successful in paying off enough of their debts to reduce the monthly payments so that bankruptcy is no longer needed, but many unfortunately are just giving up assets that can be protected. Many of our clients before seeking the advice of a bankruptcy lawyer have taken early withdrawals from their retirement accounts to try and pay their monthly expenses without paying the penalties for the early withdrawal. At the end of the year they have a tax bill that they cannot afford to pay the government and less or no money for retirement left. Is our government doing everything possible to maximize the use of public assets to reduce the national debt and reduce the monthly payment and consequently the interest payments taxpayers have to shoulder year after year?
What is the value of our federal government’s assets?
The easy answer is a lot more than you think. According to Business.time.com and author Christopher Matthews, our federal government has over eight times our national debt in assets.
• More than 900,000 separate real assets covering more than 3 billion sq. ft.
• Mineral rights, on and offshore, covering 2.515 billion acres of land, more than the total surface land in Canada
• 45,190 underutilized buildings, the operating costs of which are $1.66 billion annually
• Oil and gas resources on and offshore worth $128 trillion, roughly eight times the national debt of the country
So let us again compare our example person making $17,000 a year with $17,000 in debts. Our example person now has about $136,000 in assets at their disposal. What a difference that makes in evaluating the financial health of our example person. By any account they are doing well financially even though their debt to income ratio is not very good. How long do you think it would take our example person to sell $17,000 worth of assets to pay off their debts and be left with $119,000 in assets and a yearly income of $17,000? I cannot think of an individual or business that would not wipe out their debts in a brushstroke if they had eight times the amount of their debts in assets.
So should the federal government sell off assets to pay off the national debt? Yes, that would be nice, but who has $17 trillion to buy the assets?
https://www.cbo.gov/publication/49450 (Budget Deficit)
http://business.time.com/2013/02/05/the-federal-governments-128-trillion-stockpile-the-answer-to-our-debt-problems/ (Federal Government Assets)
http://taxfoundation.org/article/number-americans-paying-zero-federal-income-tax-grows-434-million (Number of Americans Paying Zero Income Tax)
https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2186.html (Public debt (% of GDP)
http://www.tradingeconomics.com/united-states/government-debt-to-gdp (GDP compared to National Debt)