56 min

A Libertarian and I Debate the Debt Ceiling The Ezra Klein Show

    • Society & Culture

On Jan. 19, the United States officially hit its debt limit. In response, the Treasury Department began using accounting maneuvers known as “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations temporarily. But according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, that money could run out as soon as June 1. If the United States hasn’t raised or suspended its borrowing cap, known as the debt ceiling, by then, America will default on its debt.

But Republicans are currently refusing to raise the debt ceiling until their policy demands are met. Negotiations between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the Biden administration are ongoing, but it is very difficult to see a deal that McCarthy’s hard-line members would vote for and Biden would sign. Meanwhile, default — and the accompanying economic calamity — draws ever closer.

Veronique de Rugy is an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist. For years, she’s argued that the United States’ debt levels are far too high and has defended the debt ceiling as a way to rein them in. I disagree. In my view, the debt ceiling is one of the most absurd and dangerous laws on the books. So I invited her on the show to make her case.

But I also wanted to talk about the broader fiscal picture on which this entire fight is predicated. America’s debt is currently about 100 percent of the U.S. G.D.P., up from just 35 percent in 2007, and is projected to reach 185 percent by 2052. Meanwhile, Social Security is projected to run out of its cash reserves by 2033, and the trust fund funding Medicare hospital coverage (Medicare Part A) is projected to run out by 2028.

What do those numbers actually mean? How worried should we be about them? And what could be done to address our growing debt?

Mentioned:

“The Debt-Ceiling Fight Is a Symptom of Congress’s Disease” by Veronique de Rugy

“The Liquidation of Government Debt” by Carmen M. Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia

Book Recommendations:

Range by David Epstein

Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Let Them In by Jason L. Riley

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Roge Karma. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker, and Kate Sinclair. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Our production team is Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. And special thanks to Carole Sabouraud and Kristina Samulewski.

On Jan. 19, the United States officially hit its debt limit. In response, the Treasury Department began using accounting maneuvers known as “extraordinary measures” to continue paying the government’s obligations temporarily. But according to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, that money could run out as soon as June 1. If the United States hasn’t raised or suspended its borrowing cap, known as the debt ceiling, by then, America will default on its debt.

But Republicans are currently refusing to raise the debt ceiling until their policy demands are met. Negotiations between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and the Biden administration are ongoing, but it is very difficult to see a deal that McCarthy’s hard-line members would vote for and Biden would sign. Meanwhile, default — and the accompanying economic calamity — draws ever closer.

Veronique de Rugy is an economist at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a nationally syndicated columnist. For years, she’s argued that the United States’ debt levels are far too high and has defended the debt ceiling as a way to rein them in. I disagree. In my view, the debt ceiling is one of the most absurd and dangerous laws on the books. So I invited her on the show to make her case.

But I also wanted to talk about the broader fiscal picture on which this entire fight is predicated. America’s debt is currently about 100 percent of the U.S. G.D.P., up from just 35 percent in 2007, and is projected to reach 185 percent by 2052. Meanwhile, Social Security is projected to run out of its cash reserves by 2033, and the trust fund funding Medicare hospital coverage (Medicare Part A) is projected to run out by 2028.

What do those numbers actually mean? How worried should we be about them? And what could be done to address our growing debt?

Mentioned:

“The Debt-Ceiling Fight Is a Symptom of Congress’s Disease” by Veronique de Rugy

“The Liquidation of Government Debt” by Carmen M. Reinhart and M. Belen Sbrancia

Book Recommendations:

Range by David Epstein

Kindly Inquisitors by Jonathan Rauch

Let Them In by Jason L. Riley

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

You can find transcripts (posted midday) and more episodes of “The Ezra Klein Show” at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein. Book recommendations from all our guests are listed at https://www.nytimes.com/article/ezra-klein-show-book-recs.

This episode of “The Ezra Klein Show” was produced by Roge Karma. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker, and Kate Sinclair. Mixing by Jeff Geld. Our production team is Emefa Agawu, Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld, Roge Karma and Kristin Lin. Original music by Isaac Jones. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. The executive producer of New York Times Opinion Audio is Annie-Rose Strasser. And special thanks to Carole Sabouraud and Kristina Samulewski.

56 min

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