The national debt is astronomical: Look to the cosmos to put it in perspective
Federal budget hawks might not immediately think of the sun at the center of our solar system and Sirius A, the “Dog Star,” as they observe the ballooning federal deficit and national debt. But a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) suggests that helioseismology (the study of the sun) and even astronomy could offer understanding about the nation’s fiscal path.
The CBO recently forecast the government will run a staggering deficit of $3.311 trillion this year. In other words, the federal government will spend $3.3 trillion more than it takes in. This new gap is a record. By a country mile. Or, perhaps the distance between Earth and the sun.
The revised summertime figure is a little better than the CBO’s spring projection of a stunning $3.7 trillion deficit. But again, all things are relative.
Coronavirus is the culprit.
Fewer people are working. So there’s an economic slowdown. Tax revenues are depressed. And, Congress has approved anywhere from $3.5 trillion to nearly $4 trillion in just the past few months to combat the pandemic. More big spending could be on the way.
The national debt and budget deficit were monstrous before coronavirus – and growing. Now, during the pandemic, they’ve reached astronomical levels.
So what does this have to do with sun? Or, Sirius A, the “Dog Star?”
The sun is gigantic. Its diameter is 864,000 miles or the equivalent of 19 earths. In fact, the sun accounts for 99.8% of all mass in the solar system. And the sun is powerful, too. A nuclear fusion behemoth composed mostly of scorching hydrogen and helium.
Our sun is really something.
But the sun is tiny compared with Sirius A, sometimes referred to as Alpha Canis Majoris A, the “Dog Star.”
The Dog Star is twice the size of the sun. The proportions are staggering.
But even the Dog Star is far from top dog when it comes to colossal stars. Pollux in the Gemini constellation is 32 times brighter than our sun and 10 times the size. Arcturus is 25 times the size of the sun, located in the Bootes constellation. We haven’t even mentioned the Pistol Star, a “blue hypergiant” near the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. At 93 million miles in diameter, the Pistol Star would fill the entire void between the Earth and the Sun. Mu Cephei is 1,600 times brighter than the Sun. It would consume the entire expanse between Jupiter and the Sun. And of course, there is always a bigger dog. VY Canis Majoris, a “red hypergiant” star, boasts a diameter of 1.7 billion miles.
It is hard to fathom the sheer enormity of such celestial bodies. Especially compared to something we kind of understand: our own sun.
But everything is relative.
Fiscal conservatives have fretted about profligate federal spending, the national debt and budget deficit for decades. The U.S. ran a budget surplus in 1969: $3.2 billion. But some yearly, staggering deficits began to follow. $23 billion in 1971. $53.2 billion in 1975. $73.8 billion in 1980. $185 billion in 1984. $290 billion in 1992.
It was thought the U.S. may catch a break at the end of the Cold War. The “peace dividend,” as it was called. Bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill thought it could be possible to reduce some military spending once the Soviet Union dissolved. Funding for the Pentagon is the largest (by far) section of what’s called “discretionary” spending that Congress appropriates yearly. That said, the budget deficit receded into a surplus in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But 9/11 took care of that. Couple that with exploding entitlement spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which compose 70 percent of all federal spending, and you have a massive problem.
The national debt skyrocketed. More than $6 trillion in 2002. $10 trillion in 2008. $17 trillion in 2014. $22 trillion in 2019. Now, after coronavirus we’re looking at a national debt of $26 to $27 trillion. And the Congressional Budget Office forecasts the budget deficit, as a percentage of total economic output or gross domestic product (GDP), is pushing 16 percent. That’s the highest figure since the end of World War II.
“The cumulative deficit between 2021 and 2030 is projected to total $13.0 trillion (5.0 percent of GDP over that period), about the same as CBO projected in March. Lower projected wages, salaries, and corporate profits, as well as recent legislation and other changes, increase deficits, but that change is more than offset by lower projected interest rates and inflation, which decrease deficits,” CBO said.
Consider that the U.S. went from an annual deficit of several hundred billion dollars annually just a few years ago to the shock of $3.3 trillion today.
In other words, we were at the size of the sun. The deficit and national debt were big enough to worry fiscal hawks. But it didn’t take much time to graduate to the Dog Star level. The explosion of debt whisked us past Pollux and Arcturus, to at least the Pistol Star.
Now there’s a debate on Capitol Hill about another coronavirus relief package. Congressional Democrats are pushing $3 trillion, or at least $2.2 trillion over a shorter time period. Republicans are pushing for something smaller, perhaps around $1 trillion. It’s unclear if the sides can ever assemble another assistance measure. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said repeatedly there are 20 members of his conference who don’t care to do another bill at all. The August jobs numbers will likely increase resistance to another package from GOPers.
But it’s hard to believe there won’t be another coronavirus package, in some form, at some point. Maybe within the next month. Maybe later this fall or beyond. Coronavirus and the associated economic calamity aren’t disappearing soon. So, this will inevitably spike the deficit and national debt again. And probably again.
This is why the CBO painted such a grim picture over the next decade. By 2030, the national debt could top $33.457 trillion.
If that’s the case, we left the Dog Star in the stardust. And it probably means we’re on a fiscal trajectory to rendezvous with VY Canis Majoris. One of the biggest dogs of all.