Nancy: American Express, this is Nancy. How may I help you?
Me: Hi, Nancy, I'm calling to request an increase in my credit line.
Nancy: Okay, I'm looking at your account, here... how much were you thinking about?
Me: I'd like to double it.
Nancy: Double? That's quite a large increase. May I ask the reason?
Me: Well, the thing is, I'm in kind of a bind.
Nancy: I see. Some sort of emergency?
Me: That's exactly what it is. I don't have enough money to pay my bills.
Nancy: And, having a higher credit limit...
Me: Well, if I could borrow more, I could pay my bills and still buy the stuff I need every month.
Nancy: I see. And how would you pay off your American Express bill?
Me: You guys don't make me to pay it off every month.
Nancy: Yes, but we do want you to be able to pay it off eventually.
Me: Oh, sure. But, "eventually" is so far away, ya know? It's like, in the future and everything.
Nancy: How about your income... has it increased lately?
Me: No, not really...
Nancy: Maybe a reduction in your expenses...?
Me: Nope. One in college, two on the way. And, they're driving now. Seen gas prices lately?
Nancy: How about investments? Any money coming in?
Me: If my brother-in-law would pay me back... but he's broker than I am. Nope, it's pretty bleak--
Nancy: I'm sorry, sir. I wish there was something--
Me: But, wait. Things are getting better!
Nancy: Okay, great. Tell me about that.
Me: Don't you watch TV? The economy is improving. It's all over the news.
Nancy: Uh-huh. Okay, well your credit report shows your debt has increased quite a bit, lately.
Me: Oh, yeah, everyone's been really cool. I just got off the phone with Household Finance.
Nancy: Don't they charge a pretty high interest rate?
Me: It's insane! But, I'm getting a new big screen out of the deal.
Nancy: You mean a TV?
Me: No. A 70-inch 3D, LED, flat panel. The detail is so incredible--
Nancy: I'm sure it is.
Me: Did you know Katie Couric had really bad acne?
Nancy: I happen to like Katie Couric.
Me: Exactly! Everyone likes her. But, if they had a big screen like this... know what I mean?
Nancy: Sir, if your debts keep rising, all your creditors could double your rates.
Me: They can't do that.
Nancy: I'm afraid they can, and they probably will.
Me: But... but, my payments would double.
Me: How would I pay the rent, insurance, groceries...? Groceries are going through the roof.
Nancy: That's what I've been trying to say.
Me: Ah, jeeze. What was I thinking? How could I be so stupid?
Nancy: It's okay, sir. It's not too late to change course. We can help.
Me: Wow. Really...?
Nancy: That's what we're here for.
Me: I can't thank you enough. Okay, so if we triple my credit limit instead of doubling it--
Me: Hello? Hello? Nancy, are you there? Hello...?
Last night, at my 9-year old's father-daughter dance, a friend mentioned that his investment manager ("really, really smart people") insist that the spiraling national debt doesn't matter. We've been down this road before, and it won't matter this time either. Having spent 20 years in institutional investment management, I know all about his investment manager. I know that, like most managers, they're better at marketing than managing money. My friend, who really, really is smart, will figure this out soon enough.
But, it got me to thinking -- have we really been down this road before? They point to the fact that debt soared during the Great Depression (40% of GDP) and World War II (95%), but those dollars were recirculated in the real economy -- building dams, roads, planes and tanks -- not gifted to banks to pad their balance sheets.
Today, we sit at about 115% of GDP. We spent about $3.6 trillion in 2011, while taking in only $2.3 trillion. That $1.3 trillion difference is paid for with more debt -- now $15.5 trillion. Because interest rates are so low, we spent only $227 billion net in servicing the debt. You can pull that kind of thing off with a 10-year at 2%.
Bernanke and friends are doing the only thing they know how to do -- they're keeping their patient alive with an adrenaline drip. Congress and the White House are slipping him pizza and smokes when no one's watching. And, the American public...we're so engrossed in daytime TV in the hospital lounge that we can't hear the heart monitor blaring.
Does the national debt matter? Not at all. Until it does.