By Jason Margolis
The United States is $14 trillion dollars in debt.
But forget that behemoth number. By itself, it says very little.
"Aggregate debt numbers that sound stupendously large, look a lot smaller once you divide them by GDP. And it's really important to do that," explained Lee Branstetter, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University.
In other words, economists look at how much money we owe as a nation as a percentage of how much money we make, our GDP. Historically, that's been the way to measure the health of an economy.
And by that measure, the US is doing reasonably well by international, and historical, comparisons. The U.S. owes about 60 percent as a percentage of GDP. Greece owes more than twice that. France, Italy, Japan, and the UK also owe more than the U.S. But Australia owes less than a tenth of what the U.S. does.
So what exactly does that low debt get you?
"One big benefit it brings is the ability to respond in a relatively unfettered way to things like the GFC (global financial crisis)," said economist Jeff Borland with the University of Melbourne.
When the worldwide markets tanked two years ago, Australia passed a massive stimulus, investing in things like school buildings and home construction. Many economists say this helped prevent the country from sliding into recession. The U.S. also passed a stimulus, but that one-time cash infusion is about to dry up.
"If you look at the U.S. at the moment, some economists would argue that the U.S. could benefit from further fiscal stimulus," said Borland. "But the level of debt is obviously seen, even by Democrats, I guess as a constraint on maintaining fiscal stimulus."
Australia doesn't have that constraint. Yet even as Australia's low debt is the envy of much of the Western world, Australian politicians are still preoccupied with lowering it even further.
"It's a big issue, but it's a stupid issue. It shouldn't be a big issue," said Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, the country's largest trade union.
Australia has gone 19 years without dipping into recession, although its economy did slow down this year after floods in Queensland.
So just how did Australia keep its debt so low? Two major reasons: First, many economists chalk it up to good government policies, things like fewer tax loopholes and frugal spending. Second, Australia just got lucky. The country has a lot of minerals, like coal and iron, and a neighbor — China — who has been willing to buy as much stuff as Australia can dig up.
"Our obsession with having no debt can also be a huge problem in terms of how we plan for the future, how we build the infrastructure during the good times, to allow us to diversify in the bad times," Howes said. "I think there are a lot of people in our society walking around with rose-tinted glasses thinking this will never end, and it will."
I encountered that attitude a lot in Australia. People said, sure Australia has a low debt, but they say that's because the government isn't spending enough money.
"No one would know driving through rural New South Wales that we are in a boom time," said Tim Duddy, a farmer in the Liverpool Plains, about a five-hour drive north of Sydney. "Our roads are falling apart. Our schools are appalling. Our hospitals are falling to bits because no money is being put back into these infrastructural things."
It's all relative though. Australians still enjoy a generous safety net and universal healthcare. Their urban public transit puts U.S. subways and trains to shame.
There is another important number to consider in the debt discussion — how much it costs to borrow. Right now, the Australian government, like Washington, can do that relatively cheaply. So, some argue, Australia should borrow more so it can invest in hospitals, schools, roads and bridges.
Others argue, a big reason Australian interest rates are so low is the federal government has been frugal and carries a low debt. And they say, that frugality should continue.
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