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TIME magazine's latest cover story perpetuates a dangerous misconception about the national debt. Addressed to “Dear Reader,” the cover story claims that you (personally) owe $42,998.12. “That’s what every American man, woman and child would need to pay to erase the $13.9 trillion U.S. debt.”

Tagged with the vaguely Trump-ian “Make America Solvent Again,” this logic is particularly problematic in an election year when citizens are considering how the future leader of our country will shape our nation's policy. 

1. Analyzing The National Debt Takes More Than a Four Function Calculator

The TI-108 can do many things. It can help estimate the number of jelly beans in a jar, for example, or help figure out a tip. It even runs off the power of the sun.

It cannot, however, provide a meaningful analysis of the national debt.

Author James Grant (about whom more later) arrived at his conclusions the old fashioned way, by dividing the national debt (currently about $13.9 trillion) by the number of people in America (roughly 318.9 million). And Grant’s right about how long division works, just much less so about money.

Economics isn't that simple, and the per-capita value of the national debt is a factoid. Presenting it as some sort of personal tab is irresponsible.

2. We don’t want to “erase” the debt.

As we’ve written about in this space before, macroeconomics is simply personal finance writ large. Although that's a popular analogy for deficit hawks (families pay their debts, the government should too), the reality is far more complicated given the unique scale, scope and powers of the federal government.

For instance, U.S. debt actually plays a major role in world economics, and suddenly making that vanish would cause huge ripple effects. As NPR’s David Kestenbaum pointed out, “[i]f the U.S. paid off its debt there would be no more U.S. Treasury Bonds in the world.”

Why is that a big deal? To name just one of several reasons, these bonds are seen as rock-solid investment vehicles. They’re where banks, governments and everyone else park money when they need safe investments. Mortgages and loans are set around that baseline interest rate and that stability is what makes the dollar the world’s biggest reserve currency (a source of huge global influence for the United States). Paying off the debt would mean pulling those bonds from the market, completely. The result would be chaos until another vehicle, most likely not American, replaced them.

In other words, as American statesmen have known since the time of Alexander Hamilton, erasing the debt isn’t actually a good thing.

3. “That every American man, woman and child would need to pay…”

Where to begin here?

Grant would have you believe that each of us is on the hook equally, but that’s not how economics works. America taxes progressively, which means that everyone contributes differently. It may seem unfair to some, to paraphrase Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, just because you pay 27 times the tax doesn’t mean the fire department shows up 27 times faster or the water comes out 27 times hotter, but we run our government on the idea that those who have done better owe more to the society which allowed that success.

The upshot is that, no, that’s not what every “man, woman and child” would pay, not even close.

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Why, too, would we “need” to pay it? Is there an urgency to which no one but Grant is privy? There would be if interest rates were unaffordable, inflation were overly high or there was the risk of “crowd out” (when interest on treasury bonds becomes too attractive and replaces other investment). That’s not happening though.

4. America is not insolvent.

Is a graduate insolvent because of student loans? Is your neighbor insolvent because he can’t liquidate his mortgage tomorrow morning? Do you feel insolvent if a new car costs more than you have in the checking account? Of course not. In actuarial terms, insolvency may mean when debt outstrips assets, but in practical terms it’s when debt outstrips current ability to pay. This isn’t to say that unlimited debt is a good thing, but rather that it’s complicated. The real measure of debt is interest rates: how much are we paying, can we afford those payments and are they going up?

With its $18.7 trillion economy and $3.2 trillion in tax revenue, America can afford its interest and debt payments. And those payments aren’t high, in fact the interest rate is at historic lows. So while there’s much to be debated about whether further debt spending to stimulate the economy is wise, there’s no reasonable argument about whether America can afford its debt right now.

5. We owe a lot of that money to ourselves.

To keep unpacking the stupidity, a good portion of that $42,998 would get paid to… you.

Deficit hawks like Grant like to paint the picture of an American government in hock to China. In fact, the government owes between 30 and over 40% of its debt to itself.

Nearly a third of federal debt is held by branches of the federal government, the largest being the Social Security trust fund. The Federal Reserve system also owns a large volume of treasury bonds as well, amounting to another 12% or so.

China, by the way, holds roughly 8% of the national debt, a far cry from owning the Great Lakes.

6. America will not, and cannot, become Greece.

In the subtext to debt scares like this is the threat that America will catastrophically default or spook investors with the possibility. That’s a little bit like saying the subtext to having dinner is that you’ll eat 45 steaks and suffer a massive coronary.

Yes, both overeating and over-borrowing are bad, but how much is too much depends on who we’re talking about. America has a massive economy, and consequently can sustain a much higher level of debt, a fact seemingly lost on writers who like to yell about big, scary numbers.

What’s more, unlike Greece, America has control over its own currency. The real concern is not running short of dollars but in overprinting them and devaluing the currency past all recognition. That can certainly happen, just like eating too much, driving too fast or working too hard can all lead to disaster. That doesn’t mean you should starve, walk the freeway or quit your job though. It means that in economics, as in all things, the key is balance and moderation.

That makes for a less scary cover though.

7. This is politics masquerading as journalism

The line between analysis and editorial can be unquestionably fine, but Grant (a man best known to Google for his prolific bow tie game) happily tap dances on it. He is the editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, a newsletter whose design calls to mind the Federalist Papers, and some of Grant’s other work involves a call to arms in favor of gold and a book billed as “a bible for conservative economists.”

A fierce proponent of low taxes, Grant’s motivations seem less about a dedication to fiscal solvency than simply using the scariest terms possible to sell his own basket of political preferences.

There’s so much more to say about why all of this is so very, very wrong, and that’s not even getting to the meat of Grant’s article.

In the meantime, America is not going broke and no, dear reader, you do not owe $42,998.

But, if that number scares you, perhaps it would be better to consider that everyone who attends single a year of college does.

Grant seems less worried about that, though.