Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Who Cares About the National Debt?

On January 31, 2009, a few days after President Obama moved into The White House, the U.S. National Debt amounted to $10.88 trillion.  Of this, marketable debt held by members of the public amounted to $5.75 trillion, non-marketable debt (largely held by the Social Security Trust Fund) was $4.88 trillion, together summing to $10.63 trillion.

On November 30, 2013, the comparable numbers were $11.79 trillion, $5.43 trillion, and $17.21 trillion, an increase of over $1 trillion a year in both marketable and total national debt.

President Obama and most Democrats believe that annual budget deficits since the financial crash of September 2008 have, if anything, been too small.  They would have preferred larger deficits than actually transpired to stimulate the economy.

Most Republicans prefer smaller deficits, balanced budgets, and ultimately paying down the national debt or at least substantially reducing it.

It’s easy to explain this difference.  It depends on who might have to pay the debt.

Voting by Race and Ethnicity

In the 2012 presidential election, 95% of African-Americans, 72% of non-White Hispanics, and 67% of single women (inclusive of single mothers) voted for President Obama.  In contrast, a majority of men and White married women voted for Republican candidate Romney.  (According to the 2010 Census, Whites were 72%, Hispanics 16%, and Blacks 13.3% of the population.)

How might the U.S. government go about paying increasing interest and paying down  principal on the rapidly rising national debt?  One recourse is a wealth tax, either a one-off measure or an annual levy.  Another option is higher tax rates on upper-income households.

Wealth by Race and Ethnicity

There is a large wealth gap between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.  In 2009, the median net worth of White households was $113,140; of Hispanics, $6,325; and of Blacks, $5,677.  The ratio of White-to-Black wealth was 19:1, and White-to-Hispanic 15:1.  A wealth tax would overwhelmingly be borne by Whites.  Only a small fraction of Blacks and Hispanics possess sufficient wealth to be subject to a wealth tax.

Income by Race and Ethnicity

There is also a large income gap between Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics.  White median income in 2009 was $62,545; of Blacks, $38,409; and of Hispanics, $39,730.  For family income exceeding $100,000, Whites were 27.0% of all White families; Blacks, 12.1% of all Black families, and Hispanics 12.4% of all Hispanic families.  For family incomes below $35,000, Blacks made up 55.3% of all Black families, Hispanics 46% of all Hispanic families, and Whites 33.8% of all White families.  Low-income Blacks and Hispanics are a much larger fraction of their respective communities than are low-income Whites.  An income-tax surcharge or increase in tax rates would largely affect White taxpayers.

Racial and ethnic differences overlap education levels, full-time work status, and  marital status.  Whites are better educated, disproportionately work full-time, and are more likely to be married, all of which are strongly correlated with wealth and income.  (Asian-Americans are omitted from these comparisons because they constitute a much smaller fraction of the U.S. population, and because they are divided into many nationalities–Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and 12 smaller nationalities of East- and Southeast Asians–which vary in income and wealth (e.g., Chinese-Americans vs. Laotian-Americans).

To summarize, Republican voters will largely pay any wealth and/or additional income taxes that are levied to pay interest and principal on the national debt.  Democrat voters will pay little.  It should come as no surprise, then, that President Obama and most Democrats in Congress care little about large deficits and the expanding national debt as their constituents will bear little of the additional tax burden.

Sources: Income data from U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012, Tables 690, 696; Wealth data from U.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Income and Program Participation: August 2010.

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