The Truth, Mainly - 04/10/2006

Stewing about national debt
by Leon Satterfield

I suppose being born in 1934 in the midst of the Great Depression was bad timing. Along with my mother's milk, I consumed vast amounts of paranoia about buying things on credit. Debt, to me, has always been a sign that you've offended the Gods of Finance—who then decreed that you have to pay back way more than you borrowed.

So when I read about the national debt—the money our government owes to a variety of lenders, most of whom get outrageous rates of interest—I get frightened and cranky. Hence the following diatribe:

You just got that 40-year mortgage paid off? Your kids are now out on their own, making more money than you are? So it's time, money-wise, to kick back and relax?

Hold on.

You may think you're out of debt. That's because, like me until two weeks ago, you weren't paying any attention to the National Debt.

My sense of security was blown out of the water by something I got on the internet: "The Business Forum Online" by Thomas A. Faulhaber. Maybe he blew your sense of security out of the water too.

If he didn't, let me do it.

Faulhaber says our National Debt has now surpassed $7.5 trillion. Like you, I imagine, I didn't even know how many numbers are in a trillion. The President probably doesn't either.

My dictionary told me that a trillion is "a thousand billions, written as l followed by twelve zeros."

I still couldn't get my brain around it, so I wrote it on a piece of paper: $1,000,000,000,000.

Doesn't look like a real number, does it? Looks like the zero key got stuck to that wad of bubble gum your grandson hid under your keyboard.

Here's what a $7.5 trillion debt looks like: $7,500,000,000,000.

But our national debt, goosed by the war in Iraq, has already passed that number, so Congress has raised the ceiling on the debt to $8.18 trillion. It looks like this: $8,180,000,000,000.

Since Oct.1, 2003, Faulhaber writes, "the outstanding debt has been increasing an average of $1.6 billion every day." And that amounts to an increase of "almost $18,500 per second." That means that in the six seconds it took you to read that sentence, the national debt increased by $111,000.

So how does that affect me and thee?

Faulhaber says that the national debt breaks down to "more than $25,300 for every man, woman, and child in the United States."

For me and my wife, that means $50,600.

But that's not all.

"Federal taxes," Faulhaber writes, "in excess of $1,140 per year must be collected for every man, woman, and child in the United States simply to pay the interest due on the national debt."

Got that? Only $1,140 a year from every American just to pay the interest on the debt—without diminishing the debt at all. That's enough to make me cry myself to sleep.

When I wake up, I tell myself that the numbers are probably wildly exaggerated by the anti-Bush forces.

And that's when a friend sends me a copy of a letter (provided by Congressman Jeff Fortenberry's office) written by David M. Walker, Comptroller General of the U.S. The letter, dated Dec. 14, 2005, was sent to President Bush, the President of the Senate, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

"Aha," I say. "Now we'll get the real story."

And Comptroller Walker's real story, assuming he knows what he's talking about, is even scarier than Faulhaber's.

Walker writes that the federal government owes not just the measly $7.5 trillion national debt that Faulhaber reports. It also has something called "fiscal exposures," which is a way of talking about monetary obligations—Social Security, Medicare, and other federal funds promised but not yet delivered, funds possibly raided to pay off war debts.

And—hang on to your hat—those obligations, money committed but not yet accumulated, the Comptroller General says, amount to more than "$46 trillion."

Here's how that looks: $46,000,000,000,000.

And those obligations, Comptroller Walker says, translate into $156,000 per U.S. citizen. You, me, our kids and grandkids. All of us.

Walker concludes: "These amounts do not include future costs resulting from Hurricane Katrina or the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Continuing on this unsustainable path will gradually erode, if not suddenly damage, our economy, our standard of living, and ultimately our national security."

I have to stop now. I've got a bad case of Depression Baby Fantods, and there's someone about to knock at my door. He's parked his Internal Revenue truck in my driveway and he's carrying two empty bushel baskets with dollar signs on them.

Whatever can he want?


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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