14 March 2014

Russia's Breach

It is the year 2014; the 21st Century.  You socioeconomically integrate into the rest of the world, or you die.  The world clearly has embraced, and functions most efficiently through integrated open market-based systems.  Those systems were built by the West.  And that doesn't really matter anymore.  The other experiments of central planning, authoritarian nationalism and relative economic isolation or mercantilism have been proven unworkable.  The world is much more interrelated now.  And nuclear.

The classical arts of war employed over the past several thousand years – where military conquest was simply another arm of diplomacy – no longer apply.  Unless of course you are trying to send the world a century or two backwards.  Back to a time gone by, where perhaps you were once mighty.

But until that happens, how you choose to run your ship will be judged by the world markets.  There is no moral issue at play.  It is simply, capital will move away from those nations that lose their credibility when doing things deemed by the markets to be foolish and/or irresponsible; toward those that have proven they are creditworthy in this 21st Century world.

Certain holdouts like China figured this out (finally).  They are Communist in single-party state name.  Its government controls the vast majority of the means of production and distribution of wealth.  But they very clearly have been opening up to free market ideals over the past couple decades plus.

As a result, they are suddenly the second largest economy in the world.  They have improved per capita GDP from maybe ~$1,200 to ~$5,500 in just maybe the past 15 years or so (still a far cry from the lifestyle of the average American or Western European, but nonetheless a dramatic transformance in that time).

North Korea for example still hasn’t.  By my measure, they are the 92nd largest economy in the world, with a per capita GDP that wallows maybe around ~$1,000 (possibly far less).  For comparison, those nations in that club include Burma, Cameroon, Laos, Yemen, Zambia… you get the point.

Its neighbor south of its border embraced Western open market systems (basically the exact same people subjected to the exact opposite ends of the continuum of what’s left of Stalin’s installed Marxist-Leninist model in the North v. Western capitalism in the South).  Unlike the North, South Korea having integrated with the Western ideals of the world, is now its 15th largest economy, with a ~$22,000 GDP per capita.

That all compares to established economies like the US, Japan, Canada, Australia and those of Western Europe which have GDP’s per capita of ~$35,000-50,000.  Russia's is about ~$12,000.*

Anyhoo… The world markets are speaking about this whole Ukraine thing.  If they thought it was ultimately in Russia’s best interests to be doing what they’ve been doing, Russian markets would be relatively unchanged.  If markets thought it was a bad idea, Russian markets would be down a lot.

Guess what?  Russian markets are down a lot.  Through this Ukraine crisis to date (benching off roughly mid-November 2013), Russian stocks are now down almost ~20%, the ruble is down ~13-14%, Russian government bonds are down ~9-10%.  They have had to dramatically raise their deposit rates to stop the exodus from the ruble. So it would be down a lot more had they not.  This can only be defended for so long, as one nation’s treasury or central bank is ultimately never bigger than the entire world market, if the world market votes you off the island.  As Russia discovered in 1998.

What of the markets of those of Russia’s recent frenemies turned opponents to its actions in Ukraine?  In the same time, Euro Zone stocks are flat to maybe down ~1.5% (so relatively unchanged), the euro is up ~2-3%, European corporate and government bonds are up ~2-2.5%.  The US stock market is up ~3-4%, the dollar is up ~1%, as are corporate and government bonds.  Neither the Fed nor the ECB has had to defend their respective currencies over this.

So the markets are telling us who the ultimate loser is here (other than Ukraine), all else equal.  It doesn’t really matter what President Obama, Secretary Kerry or President Putin have to say about this.  Their rhetoric will not define this situation ultimately for Russia.  The markets will, based on actions taken.

And the markets are saying loud and clear that this occupation by totally-not-Russia of a neighboring sovereign state, and effective annexation of a piece of its neighbor’s soil, is not the kind of behavior that is rewarded in the 21st Century.  In the 19th or 20th Centuries it might have been.  But not today.

Russia’s transition to capitalism in the 1990s was disastrous.  So there is no wonder that there is a lot of suspicion and push back there of anything Western values related.  The result is a failing economic state, run by a bunch of 20th Century Cold Warriors.  In recent years, there has been a grand debate over there about reform (e.g., having state enterprises run by actual business people rather than by former security and military apparatus operators), but it hasn't gained critical mass.  I guess, obviously.

And let’s be accommodative to the Russian perspective.  Since Napoleon, Moscow has held a national security policy of setting up puppet buffer states between it and Western Europe.  Their expansion goals are historically defensive (and so I believe often misunderstood by the West).

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, NATO – the organization basically formed to go to war with Russia – has expanded its membership eastward toward Moscow to include the Baltics, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.  That’s like having a massive Russian military presence pointed at Washington, D.C., stationed in Indiana and Georgia.  Now Sweden is thinking of joining NATO as a result of this move in Ukraine?  And if ultimately Ukraine were ever allowed to join, Moscow would be completely pincered (rather than just mostly pincered, as it is presently).

It doesn’t at all justify occupation of other states, whether it is to support local ethnic Russians or not (straight out of the Soviet Cold War play book, by the way).  But can you at least understand the defensive insecurity about the West fiddling around in places like Ukraine?

The reins of power are held by those that can deliver a strong Russia to its people.  In my view, that is what explains President Putin’s actions in Crimea, previously in Georgia (the nation of, not the state of), potentially in eastern Ukraine, maybe Moldova or Armenia.

President Putin is no dummy.  Nor do I believe he has lost it (despite all that shirtless crossbow hunting of tigers on horseback stuff).  His actions may be fueled by and feed into his personal and their national emotions, but right or wrong these are steps being taken for flat out existential reasons.  In its present condition of state capitalist atrophy, their economy will be a lot smaller comparatively one or two decades from now.  A declining economy fuels political dissent (please refer to: the Tea Parties).  If anything is to be done other than integrating with the world, it has to be done now.

He has run the numbers and concluded that, even if integrating with the rest of the world is ultimately the best course for Russia as it is for all nations, that will still not bring Russia to the fore like the US or China.  It would at best make it a mid-size actor, more like Britain or France – a small fraction the economic prowess of US or China-rising.  And that does not fit his ego, or reclaim that national pride that is so longed for in Russia.

It also doesn’t allow Putin to stay in power.  And so let the tanks roll westward, “once more unto the breach.”

(I am using actual production numbers at real currency conversion rates as of ~2012/13, not PPP.  Because although PPP is what college kids get taught, it’s completely useless basically, as it is a fictional representation of economies.  (No one pays the same prices for all goods and services in each compared nation, as assumed in PPP.)  I prefer to function in the actual world with this stuff.  Having said that, real currency conversion has its shortfalls also, as nations manipulate their currencies.  For example, China’s GDP is really larger than comparatively reported, as they artificially hold their currency low to manipulate trade balances with us.)

31 January 2014

Example of Operating a Business and Impact on Raising Labor Costs

I keep hearing from some in the news commentary world that raising the minimum wage doesn't really have any bad impact. Basically during this big promo of the President's, to raise it from $7.25 to $10.10. That rising costs of labor, in the absence of rising sales (read: during weak economic times like now), won't cause business owners to find ways to recoup the lost profits. In my view, that's just fantasy, irrespective of whatever Princeton study they want to cite.  (But it is a popular vote-getter or poll-booster.)

Below, is a real-world example walk-through of business expenses, using a generic restaurant business. It’s lengthy, but maybe informative for those who are not business owners and don’t think about this stuff every day.

But before that, just some basic facts, because there's a lot of spin out there. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hr. Using the CPI Index, adjusting for inflation, it has averaged $7.13 since its inception in 1938. So it is in line with inflation, as defined by the CPI index. (I have my beef with CPI being a good gauge of inflation, but that’s another battle.)

The current poverty level for individuals is about a $15 thousand annual income. Adjusted for inflation, it has always been $15 thousand. ~$7.13-7.25/hr, 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year is ~$14.8-15 thousand annually.

So minimum wage has been historically designed to cover you up to the poverty level. It is not presently lagging. It is in line.  To say that wages have been flat, “when adjusted for inflation”, as they have for the past few decades before the effects of the financial crisis is to say that wages have increased at the same rate as inflation.

Having said that, from 1961 through 1979, minimum wage was somewhere in the zip code of ~$9/hr, adjusted for inflation. In other words, it provided almost ~$4 thousand more annually in today’s dollars over the poverty level during that time. That's what the Administration is advocating presently - a minimum wage that offers more than the poverty level.

I am not judging. I am not saying it is too low or too high. I am actually for raising it, but only when the economy is stronger. Benchmarking a raise in the minimum wage when say, unemployment declines to a certain level. That way everybody wins. Lower incomes get a raise; and businesses have more profits from higher sales to pay them, continue to expand and still compensate owners for their risk-taking.

But most importantly, it incentivizes all of us to come up with ways to improve the economy, rather than instead to come up with ways to simply offer greater reward for doing nothing more than what you are already doing. The latter being the bane of all heretofore class struggle.

In my view, if we want to fight stagnant wages, we need to encourage public-private partnerships to incubate nascent technologies and grow them into 21st Century industries and markets that will pay a higher wage.  We need to invest in education to align it to preparing our workers for those industries.  Part of that fight involves checking what has been runaway education inflation.

Our wages are low, because we keep trying to compete too often in markets that, now places like China, Brazil, India, the Philippines are developing more and more skilled labor that is still willing to work for half or less what the average American might.  That international pressure – available only when markets are free to source labor at the best price – I believe is the single largest pressure on all our incomes in the past few decades.  And that is an inevitable free market force, as lesser nations grow in wealth and offer a more skilled, yet still cheaper source of labor.

Not a weak union.  Their only argument is for protectionism really, which runs antithetical to healthy markets and ultimately just sickens domestic industry v. foreign competition.  See how much better our auto industry is, now that we abrogated through their financial crisis bankruptcies all those way-over-market benefits packages, negotiated decades ago by the then-stronger unions?

Not evil big business.  They are operating freely as market animals, sourcing the best possible labor at the best possible price available globally.  S&P 500 operating profit margins right now are about 15%, a few points higher than the average of the past few decades.  But it just came out of being a few points below that through the financial crisis.  So they are basically historically in line right now.
Real-world example of operating business results (using a generic restaurant in the US, based upon my experience doing diligence on thousands of operating companies over the years):
A little background - in the US, restaurant sales represent about 4% of GDP and employ about 10% of the workforce.  About half of all dollar-food sales in the US are through restaurants.  All of us have had the experience of being a patron – so it’s a familiar business model to use as an example.

Restaurants are the perfect window into the small businesses that drive the US economy, and the classical debate between lower income earning employees v. their risk-taking entrepreneurial owner-employers.  Restaurants are the typical American Dream, as 80% of them are started by people who began at near minimum wage working in that industry.  So today’s low-wage employee is highly likely to be tomorrow’s restaurant owner.

[For the following discussion, please refer to the tables at the end.]

Average annual sales for a restaurant in the US is about $700 thousand per unit.  The cost of food and liquor ranges ~25-35% and ~18-25% of sales, respectively.  In the sample income statement (below) I arrive at a 26.4% cost of sales for our generic restaurant, which assumes that food is 55% of sales and costs 30%; liquor is 45% of sales and costs 22%.

That leaves $515 thousand gross profit to pay for everything else to operate.  Most of everything else is the cost of labor and the cost of occupancy.  I’ll do labor last because that’s the punch line, although it is typically a restaurant’s largest operating expense.

First, cost of occupancy.  Take an average 2,500 square foot tenant establishment, where 20% is utility (kitchen, storage, office, eg.).  That leaves 2,000 square feet for patrons.  The more successful restaurants generate ~$500-600 per usable square foot.  The typical “Mom and Pops”, more like ~$350 (which equals our $700 thousand sales example).

Rent ranges from ~$25-45 per square foot on average across the nation right now (but can be over $80 in wealthy urban areas).  Let’s use $35.  That’s $88 thousand annually in rent (which is triple net, including landlord property taxes, etc., as is standard nowadays).  Electric, gas and water utilities for premises like this might consume about ~4-5% of sales in this current environment.  I’m using $30 thousand, or 4.3%.

So that’s $118 thousand of fixed occupancy costs to take away from $515 thousand in gross profit.  That leaves $398 thousand.

Now there’s the repair and maintenance - or replacement - of all the various equipment, furniture and fixtures.  One stove might cost ~$4-10 thousand to replace.  One refrigerator, freezer or dishwasher, ~$3-6 thousand each.  Ice bins, POS systems, sinks, prep tables, exhaust systems ~$1-3 thousand each.  If you want to have TVs for entertainment, a number of large screens could quickly add up to $10 thousand or more.  Chairs, tables, booths, dishware…

A typical 2,500 square foot place is going to easily have $80 to $120 thousand of stuff (likely higher).  Purchased by the business owner with their own savings.  That depreciates (depending on what it is) every three to seven years to almost $0 salvage value.  So depreciation expense - the proxy for the cost of replacement - on $100 thousand of stuff then will be somewhere around ~$20 thousand per year in this example.  That’s before repair and maintenance, which can easily add up to another several thousand per year.  Let’s call that $5 thousand.

Now that leaves $373 thousand in profit available.  There is a good-sized list of other stuff that restaurants pay that absolutely adds up to a number.  Liability insurance, permits and licensing on something like this could be $5-7+ thousand per year.  Credit card fees, if you assume 60-80% of sales are with credit cards can be $9-12 thousand on $700 thousand sales (Visa/Mastercard costs the merchant ~1.8-2% of charged sales, AmEx ~3-4%+; not to mention the tip is usually in that).  Trash collection, security monitoring, cable/satellite (if you have TVs are several thousand dollars a year), linen cleaning (super-expensive, which is why you don’t often see tables clothes or linen napkins) and the general expenses like phone, professional fees… all of that can very easily be another ~4-7% of sales all added up.  I am using $32 thousand, or 4.3% of sales.

That basically covers everything other than the cost of labor.  Almost all of that other than cost of sales is 100% fixed.  Meaning, no matter who does or does not walk through the door, you are paying that nut no matter what.  So we are now left with $339 thousand of that original $700 thousand to pay for the cost of its employees and hopefully have something left over for the business owner that is taking all the risk investing in and operating the business.

A place like this might have a chef at $15/hr, an assistant cook at $9.50/hr, a prep cook at $8.50/hr, and a couple busboy/expos at $7.50/hr.  It might also have a bartender and maybe three servers for a total of four tipped hourly employees.  The average of all 50 states and D.C. for minimum wages paid by the employer to tipped hourlies in the food service industry, adjusting for an allowable tip credit, is $3.85/hr.  Add to that a manager to keep everyone honest and have someone for the patrons to yell at, and that’s possibly another $40 thousand to payroll annually.  Making certain assumptions then (see Table 1 below) all that labor adds up to $245 thousand annually.

But we’re not done on the cost of labor.  The employer owes a contribution of payroll taxes on the base pay, plus all their declared tips.  In my example, this is another $28 thousand expense.  Add a little for workers’ comp, and total cost of labor here is $275 thousand, or 39.3% of sales.

In this example, that leaves $65 thousand of operating profit available to the owner.  That’s 9.3% of sales, which is low in the context that the more successful units can generate 12-25%.  But, as most restaurant costs are fixed, that greater success really comes largely from having a brand that brings in higher traffic and allows you to charge higher prices for the same slop.

In this example, cost of labor is at the higher end as a % of sales (40%) and can be as low as mid-20%.  But that involves serious labor cuts that can eat into quality of service and possibly sales as a result, and/or the owner assuming certain roles (manager or bartender for example) to cut labor.

So here’s the whole point.  This example uses the national average of $3.85/hr for a restaurant to pay tipped hourlies (or more, as the restaurant must cover any shortfall if their declared tips don’t get them to minimum wage).  Pretend instead it had to operate in a state where those costs were mandated by the government to be a lot higher.  CT for example where I live, requires that tipped hourly food servers be paid $5.69/hr, and bartenders $7.34/hr.  If I rework Table 1, plugging in those numbers, total cost of labor is now $308 thousand.

That’s $33 thousand higher labor costs annually.  With no additional sales coming through the doors, now the owner of the business is only earning $32 thousand.  The person taking all the risk and all the headache of running a business is now earning about what her assistant cook is making.  Which is kind of out of whack.  And in a business, where a $3 reduction in average check or ~7-9 less patrons per day can wipe out all profits to begin with, just the whiff of the government suggesting that they will have to pay more for labor, will already chill hiring decisions.

Forced by the government to pay everyone more on the same amount of sales, what do you think the owner is going to do?  Of course they’re going to cut hours or full-out let people go.  They sure-as-shinola aren’t going to take on another employee.  And all of that will now start eating into sales and quality of service.  Compromising the viability of the business.  So they also do what most restaurant owners do when they start to panic in the face of reducing profits – raise menu prices.  Which drives people to the place next door that didn’t.  Which just sends them quicker into a loss situation.

The President is currently pushing raising the minimum wage by $2.85 from $7.25 to $10.10.  If we raised all of this labor in this example by the lesser of $2.85 or to the $10.10 threshold, that now makes the total cost of labor $337 thousand.  That basically wipes out all profit to the owner in this example.  And now the busboys are making what the assistant chef and prep cook makes.  You think the kitchen isn’t going to be griping about wanting more than the busboys?

As the owner makes adjustments to recoup lost profits, all of that adds up to a reduction of work opportunity for employees, coming from the very thing that the government did trying to help them in the first place – raising minimum wages in the absence of improved sales for the business.

The counter-point suggests that that extra coin in workers' pockets is a direct stimulus to the economy.  And it is.  Just in nominal terms.  When demand is not strong enough, the ultimate effect is just an increase in the price of everything, without an increase in output or real growth - read, staglation.

So to conclude, if you want to raise this place’s cost of labor by ~$60 thousand without it having a negative repercussion on work opportunity for its employees, then do it as the restaurant is making at least $60 thousand more in profits.  And none of this is to support only the business owner and blame the employee.  It's a relationship, where both the employee and employer have legitimate positions.  The employee should be able to work full time and not live in poverty.  The employer is risking capital – often their life savings – and deserves a significant compensation incentive for the risk during their successful years.


21 January 2014

Government Budget Note (Yes, that's the most interesting title I could think up for this)

As of the end of 2013, our Federal government is spending about ~$700-800 billion more than it takes in in revenue.  That's down from a persistent and unprecedented $1-1.5 trillion deficit per year over the past several years, but still pretty high.

A portion of the deficit reduction is from revenue, some from an uptick in economic activity, some from the increase in the highest marginal personal income tax rates and an expiration of the reduced payroll tax rates.

On the spending side, a good portion of that is Dept of Defense, which is to be expected as we wind down two wars.  A good chunk came from the reduction of unemployment subsidies and wind down of TARP spending (the emergency fund put in place to support the economy during the financial crisis) as the economy improves and unemployment declines.  Another good chunk is from robbing public employee retirement funds and jiggling around other offsetting receipts from the public, which include cash flow received from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which were nationalized in the financial crisis (people they made housing loans to are actually starting to get current on their mortgages; again, a result of improving economy).  But otherwise, there is no substantive real budget cutting going on here, beyond the already expected Defense reduction.

So largely, our deficits contracting have far more to do with the economy coming back than anything else.  I have created a table below from some of my data (source: publicly available Treasury statements issued monthly) that show the larger categories of government spending over the past several decades.


[1] "Upper" and "lower" bounds of the range are defined as +/- 0.5 standard deviations.
[2] Net debt, which excludes debt held by agencies within the US government (mostly the Social Security trust funds).
[3] Covers housing, nutrition, energy assistance to low-income persons; persons with disabilities and the unemployed.
[4] Excludes Veterans' benefits and other subsidies for military and related personnel.
[5] Adjusted to today's dollars. 
Red or green indicates outside the bad or good bounds of the range, respectively.

There are numerous observations to make from the above data, but some of mine are: 

Higher income tax rates don't necessarily generate more revenue dollars for the government.  Notice on the tables that, when marginal income tax rates were very high decades ago, actual revenue dollars taken in by the government as a % of GDP were actually at the lower ends of historical comparison.  (Personal income tax is the lion's share of all government receipts.  All the other categories are too small for there to be anything else moving around enough to account for this.)  Higher rates when the economy is strong absolutely do bring in more revenue.  But that's much more a factor of a strong economy.  And as tax rates go higher, it encourages exploiting loopholes and shelters and other avoidance that generally pushes investment outside of the US, defeating the whole purpose and actually aiding our foreign competitors.

Defense spending isn't anywhere near the present-day culprit to our budgetary problems that some suggest.  In the past couple decades, it's at the lowest ends of its share of government receipts.  In the 1950-60s part of the Cold War, we spent double the share of today.  And it's been coming down consistently as a % of receipts ever since - yes, even Reagan crushing the Soviet Evil Empire years weren't anywhere near Ike, Kennedy or Johnson defense budgets.  Having said that, just because something is lower, doesn't mean we still can't find unnecessary spending to eliminate in there.  And especially when combining defense with overall security apparatus spending, it's still a really big number that can be further culled.

It's all about social subsidies.  Social Security, Medicare and other income security (the wide variety of Johnson "war on poverty" styled programs which include housing, nutrition and energy assistance to low-income persons; persons with disabilities and the unemployed) consumed ~40% of federal revenues in the 1970s.  Now they consume ~55-65%.  Taken with defense spending, ~75-85% of all government receipts are consumed by either a handout or the military.  And again, defense spending is historically low.

That's where all the money is going.  So to the extent we need to make meaningful cuts to get our house in order, there simply is no other place to cut that will move the needle other than subsidies.  And that's the rub, because to suggest cutting any of that social subsidy is characterized as cruel or uncaring.  Let's just say, the Scrooge-Darwin ticket isn't polling very well right now.  But if we don't raise revenue a butt-load, that's simply what we have to do.  And raising taxes on the rich a lot - people that already contribute the vast lion's share of tax receipts - at a point doesn't raise any more revenues and begins to stifle the economy.  Growing the economy is the most immediate and productive source of government revenue.

As you peruse the table - where I've colored in red those sub-par budget periods - almost all of those bad budget periods are much more the result of economic downturns and not actual policy.  Over the decades, the trends are set by policy for sure.  But they are also set by long-term demographic shifts as well - like having to care for a bunch of people that are living WAY longer than we originally ever thought they might.  When we vastly expanded Social Security and instituted Medicare in the 1960s for example, people on average lived 3 years past the age of retirement.  And they were 8% of population.  Now they live 13 years past retirement.  And those over 65 (becoming mostly Baby Boomers) are 13% of population on their way to 20% in the next 15 years.

In shorter term periods however, it's really just about economic ebbs and flows, as expenditure levels are static (and actually increase in recessions) while revenue sources decline.  The across the board really bad numbers during Obama's tenure for example are almost 100% the result of the Great Recession and its lingering effects.  But that's the whole point.  The economy has far more to do with the failure AND success of any budget than actual policy.  Obama's budgets don't suck.  They're almost the exact same as W Bush's (other than one year of higher tax rates in 2013).  They just exist in a sucky economy.

W Bush didn't really spend in any unprecedented fashion.  Even though he put us into fighting two decade-long wars and expanding Medicare Part D while cutting tax rates, his average deficits were in line with Clinton's or Carter's.  So where's the excess?  Yes, he reversed a surplus that happened under Clinton, and went back to borrowing to spend.  Which is not bad - actually it's beneficial - if it doesn't get too excessive.

The definition of a surplus is the government having more money than it needs.  Read: It took more money from us than it should have, which we otherwise could have been using to expand the economy.  Modest deficit spending, paid for through modest borrowing at the lowest possible interest rates, levers a competitive advantage v. other nations.  And then the financial crisis showed up and tanked all the numbers (to-date), which had no more to do with W Bush being President at that moment than 9-11 did.  Period.

Clinton didn't really balance the budget in the 1990s.  The unprecedented drive in the private sector from the dot-com/tech booms and one of the best economic environments in a generation did.  I've run the numbers: I believe the budget would have balanced itself about ~4.75-6.5 years later if Clinton never raised tax rates.

So let's focus on growing and investing in the actual economy more than just finding ways to suck more out of it.  And government can play a role in that through public-private partnerships incubating nascent technologies, growing them into new 21st Century industries and jobs.  If you're reading this via the Internet and/or off your cell phone right now, the government was a partner in the development of both those technologies/industries.  Raise the economy, and those revenue dollars will come flooding into government coffers.

Finally, debt and the interest we pay on it.  Right now, we pay about 15% of all Federal receipts just on the interest we pay to borrow.  That's roughly where Greece's interest expense was to revenues in 2010 when the world lost faith in it and its markets collapsed.  But Greece is a far more troubled place, so it isn't suggestive.  Just for comparison.

And we've been that high before.  But when the size of our debts were far smaller.  Because interest rates were a lot higher.  Right now the interest rate our government is charged to borrow is unprecedentedly low.  As low as near-0% to about ~3% on average right now.  That is a product of the Federal Reserve forcing them to stay low, combined with the lingering depressive effects of the worst recession of the modern era.

But now, our debt held by the public is ~75% of GDP, or about $12.3 trillion.  Adjusting that to gross debt and adding in other government debt (state and local) to be apples-to-apples, that is about 10% debt to GDP below where Greece was before its total collapse began.  Again, just sayin'.

(The Greek drachma - not that it exists anymore - is not the world's reserve currency.  Greece is not the world's largest market.  Greece does not boast the most advanced and powerful military on the planet, capable of projecting its influence anywhere.  Greece is not the most financially, economically, geopolitically influential nation on Earth.  The US is.  So don't get too flustered about the comparison.  Just be aware that even the mighty can fall.  It just takes a bigger push.  And we are presently being pushed.)

In 2007, our debt held by the public was ~35% of GDP, or about $5.1 trillion.  Interest on the debt in 2007 was about 9.5% of revenues.  After seven years of W Bush in office at that point (meaning pre-financial crisis, before where all numbers get out of whack), that's a historically plain-vanilla level of debt (only 2% of GDP higher than where Clinton left it; 7% below what it's averaged 1929-2007), and a rather lower share of interest expense.  At the end of his Administration (end of 2008, the worst point of the crisis), debt was 43% of a severely depressed GDP, which is in line with the average of the last 8-decade or 4-decade averages of 42% and 38%, respectively, for comparison.

So now at 2014 with several $trillion more in debt outstanding, if interest rates were to start to rise back to more normal levels (which will happen when the economy gets back to more normal looking), we're going to have a problem pretty quickly.  If rates rose by 2%, from our current effective 3%, to 5%, on now with $12.3 trillion in debt (and don't forget, $700-800 billion in budget deficit means we are increasing debt by $700-800 billion more each year), interest expense would rise by ~$250 billion.

Which is about 9% of current Federal receipts.  Which means interest would go from 15% of receipts to 24% with just a 2% rise in interest rates to 5%.  And they've been as high as double-digits, and have for the past two decade been considered normal around ~5-7%.  So that's not at all an outlandish supposition to go back to 5%.

(Not completely fair, as presumably a rising interest rate environment is occurring during an improving economy, so government receipts would be rising faster too.  But then there's stagflation - inflation without growth.  Which is exactly what will happen if we, say, raise the minimum wage in the middle of a weak economic environment.  Which is exactly the discussion right now, since it's popular and no one seems to have a better idea.)

In this already depressed economic period, interest on our debt plus social subsidies plus defense spending already consume 103% of government revenues.  Add in all the rest of government, and spending is about 128% of revenue.  If interest rates rise 2%, that will become 137%; 3% and it's 141%.  The more that goes on, the more nervous markets get about lending us money.  Which raises interest rates more.  Which makes it worse.  Which makes them more nervous.

So it all gets back to improve the economy.  More money flows into the government.  All this expenditure and debt becomes smaller in proportion, and thus a smaller problem.  Then you can afford to buy your boy that G.I. Joe with the kung fu grip...  And we all know what that means.