Til Government Debt do us part

There has been heavy coverage in the mainstream media in recent days, weeks and months about the debt crisis facing the European Union.  I thought I’d put everything into perspective by looking at the debt levels of the countries comprising the G8, the economic glue that binds the world.
For the purposes of this posting, I went directly to the source material for each government.  For example, if you click on the debt level, you will link directly to the source of the data be it the United States Treasury Department or Japan’s Ministry of Finance for example.  I did not rely on data taken from media sources except for the population of Germany since their up-to-date population data was not available online.  Please note that there may be some slight and inadvertent inaccuracies (keeping in mind that I don’t get paid to do this research) but I’ve tried to find the most recent data available.
Here is the debt information (converted to USD for comparison’s sake) from internal government documentation:
United States debt:  $13,789,699,194,529.33 (Nov. 19, 2010)
Great Britain debt:  £955 billion – $1.52 trillion (Oct. 2010)
Japan debt:  741.3 trillion yen – $8.881 trillion (Sept. 30th, 2010)
France debt:  1591.5 billion euros – $2.166 trillion (Q2 2010)
Italy debt:  1520.87 billion euros – $2.0699 trillion (Q4 2009)
Germany debt:  1096.811 billion euros – $1.4928 trillion (Sept. 30, 2010) 
Russia debt:  $456.06 billion (June 2010)
Canada debt: $582.472 billion – $592.96 billion (2009 – 2010) 
Let’s look at population of each of the G8 countries taken from government data sources (other than Germany):
United States:  310,764,645
United Kingdom: 61,792,000 (mid-2009)
Japan: 127,390,000
France:  64,667,374
Italy:  60,340,328
Germany:  82,110,097
Russia:  139,390,205
Canada:  34,108,800
Now let’s look at per capita debt keeping in mind that the debt is evenly divided between every man, woman, child and infant:
United States:  $45,697
United Kingdom:  $24,599
Japan:  $69,715
France:  $33,494
Italy:  $34,304
Germany:  $18,180
Russia:  $3,272
Canada:  $17,384
I realize that most economists like to compare debt to GDP.  To me, that concept is somewhat nebulous and abstract and the debt to GDP data tends to vary widely based on the source used.  As an individual, I can relate better to the per capita debt data because it tells me what portion of the sovereign debt is “connected” to me.
From the per capita debt data, we can see that Japan, as noted in this posting, is in a tough position, especially since the country has a shrinking population.  Even if no more debt were added, the per capita debt level will rise.  The United States is in bad shape as well, followed by Italy and France.  By this measure, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada are in relatively good shape and Russia appears to be the bastion of economic prudence (see the next paragraph).
As an aside, Russia has foreign currency reserves of $17.264 billion in its Reserve Fund and $31.855 billion in its National Wealth Fund which together comprise Russia’s Stabilization Fund.  Let’s not forget, however, that Russia defaulted on its sovereign debt in 1998 throwing the world’s economy into turmoil.  The country’s debt to GDP level now stands at about 5% of its GDP.  For interest’s sake and by comparison, from its own Department of Treasury data, Italy’s debt is now 115.8 percent of its GDP and from France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, its debt to GDP level is now 82.9 percent.
What really annoys me off about the rapid accrual of sovereign debt is that no finance minister, prime minister, premier or president ever talks about paying off the debt.  Certainly, there are vague promises that governments are working toward deficit reduction at some point in the future but generally, even the most optimistic of prognostications suggests that balance will be reached some four or five years into the future.  I don’t think that it’s my imagination, but that four or five years seems to slide forward every year like a carrot dangling in front of a horse.  It also seems more than coincidental that balance will take place after the next election cycle.
As voters, we need to hold our governments and those we elect to office responsible for decades of mismanagement and, should they break their promises to balance government spending with tax revenue, we need to turf them from office at our earliest convenience and replace them with someone who might, someday, actually keep their promises.  An unfortunate side effect of inaction is the hardship that future generations will face; the world, for them, is going to be a far different place.

Click HERE to read more of Glen Allen’s columns.

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