Current Weather
The Spy FM

What If We Paid Off The Debt? The Secret Government Report

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
October 20, 2011

Planet Money has obtained a secret government report outlining what once looked like a potential crisis: The possibility that the U.S. government might pay off its entire debt.

It sounds ridiculous today. But not so long ago, the prospect of a debt-free U.S. was seen as a real possibility with the potential to upset the global financial system.

We recently obtained the report through a Freedom of Information Act Request. You can read the whole thing here. (It’s a PDF.)

The report is called “Life After Debt”. It was written in the year 2000, when the U.S. was running a budget surplus, taking in more than it was spending every year. Economists were projecting that the entire national debt could be paid off by 2012.

This was seen in many ways as good thing. But it also posed risks. If the U.S. paid off its debt here would be no more U.S. Treasury bonds in the world.

“It was a huge issue.. for not just the U.S. economy, but the global economy,” says Diane Lim Rogers, an economist in the Clinton administration.

The U.S. borrows money by selling bonds. So the end of debt would mean the end of Treasury bonds.

But the U.S. has been issuing bonds for so long, and the bonds are seen as so safe, that much of the world has come to depend on them. The U.S. Treasury bond is a pillar of the global economy.

Banks buy hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth, because they’re a safe place to park money.

Mortgage rates are tied to the interest rate on U.S. treasury bonds.

The Federal Reserve — our central bank — buys and sells Treasury bonds all the time, in an effort to keep the economy on track.

If Treasury bonds disappeared, would the world unravel? Would it adjust somehow?

“I probably thought about this piece easily 16 hours a day, and it took me a long time to even start writing it,” says Jason Seligman, the economist who wrote most of the report.

It was a strange, science-fictiony question.

“What would it look like to be in a United States without debt?” Seligman says. “What would life look like in those United States?”

Yes, there were ways for the world to adjust. But certain things got really tricky.

For example: What do you do with the money that comes out of people’s paychecks for Social Security? Now, a lot of that money gets invested in –- you guessed it — Treasury bonds. If there are no Treasury bonds, what do you invest it in? Stocks? Which stocks? Who picks?

In the end, Seligman concluded it was a good idea to pay down the debt — but not to pay it off entirely.

“There’s such a thing as too much debt,” he says. “But also such a thing, perhaps, as too little.”

The copy of Life After Debt we obtained reads “PRELIMINARY AND CLOSE HOLD OFFICIAL USE ONLY.”

The report was intended to be included in the official “Economic Report of the President” — the final one of the Clinton administration. But in the end, people above Jason Seligman decided it was too speculative, too politically sensitive. So it was never published.

The danger that we would pay off our debt by 2012 has clearly passed. There are plenty of Treasury bonds around these days. U.S. debt held by the public is now over $10 trillion. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

Listen Live Now!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

10AM to 11PM On Point

On Point

On Point unites distinct and provocative voices with passionate discussion as it confronts the stories that are at the center of what is important in the world today. Leaving no perspective unchallenged, On Point digs past the surface and into the core of a subject, exposing each of its real world implications.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center