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National Debt Passes $10 Trillion, No One Notices

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There are enough signs of the apocalypse already: the global financial crisis, reports that one in four mammals are at risk of extinction, the Cubs (briefly) making the playoffs. So maybe it's no surprise that a huge milestone (or tombstone perhaps) slipped by without much notice. The national debt broke $10 trillion on Sept. 30, but honestly there was so much going on that we can forgive everyone for being distracted. Including us.

Ten trillion is an almost unimaginable number -- so colossal that the even the people who worry about debt had trouble anticipating it. The National Debt Clock in Times Square, for example, didn't even have room for that many digits. On Sept. 30, they had to squeeze the "1" and the dollar sign into the same box.

How much is a trillion dollars anyway? Like we all learned in school, it's a thousand billions, and as the old line goes, "a billion here and a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money." But the difference between a billion and a trillion is staggering.

With a billion dollars, you could keep about 45,000 people in a four-year college for a year -- or, depending on their behavior, in jail. The College Board says private tuition and fees average $22,218 per year; the Bureau of Justice Statistics says the average cost per inmate is $22,650 per year. With a trillion dollars, you could cover tuition for 45 million people -- and in 2006 there were only 17 million students enrolled in college nationwide.

You could think of lots of good ways to spend $10 trillion, but the point is that we don't have it -- we owe it. And hold on, folks, there's more. Just to name a few:

This problem is getting worse. We're adding to the debt at mind-boggling rates. In fact we're spending more on interest on the national debt than we're spending on the Iraq war. For 2008, the deficit was projected to be more than $400 billion - but that was before the Wall Street bailout. Not only did the Congressional Budget Office project a $400 billion deficit this year, they also anticipated a $400 billion deficit, next year, and the year after that, with further deficits for the next decade. The numbers could be much worse than that. The financial crisis and the recession that will almost certainly follow will reduce tax revenues because people who are unemployed and businesses that are losing money don't pay taxes. So those figures are optimistic.

We're borrowing to pay for the Wall Street bailout. True, as many have pointed out, the government may actually make money on the bailout in the long run. The bad debts the government buys should be worth something at some point, so the final bill may well be less than $700 billion. But that may be years off -- the money we have to shell out up front will be paid over the next two years. At no point during the ragged, torturous congressional debate did we really talk about how the government's going to pay for this. No one's talking about tax increases or spending cuts to cover it. And when politicians don't specify how they're going to pay for something, that means they're going to borrow. And, by the way, those little "sweeteners" -- the Congressional earmarks for children's wooden arrows, racetracks and the rums of Puerto Rico -- are paid for with red ink too.

The irony of the government borrowing to head off the consequences of bad debts speaks for itself. The good news is that the U.S. government is one of the few institutions out there that can borrow. Banks won't loan to each other, much less businesses and consumers, but the U.S. Treasury bond is one of the few safe havens left. And many would argue that this is not the time to quibble - when you're trying to put out a fire, you don't worry about where the water is coming from. But after the fire is put out, the debts are going to remain.

We've got more big bills on the way, and no plan to pay them. The Government Accountability Office estimates that rising health care costs and the retirement of the baby boomers mean a cool $53 trillion in "unfunded liabilities" ahead of us over the next several decades . By 2040, if nothing changes, the government won't have any money for anything other than Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and paying interest on the money we've already borrowed.

You know, of course, how the bank insists that you have a specific schedule to pay back your car loan or mortgage? (Never mind that this isn't working out for lots of people right now). Well, the government doesn't have one. The plan for paying off the national debt can be summed up as "maybe someday we'll have a surplus again, and we can pay it down." As for that $53 trillion in liabilities, that depends entirely on whether we as a nation can come up with a politically viable plan to fix Social Security and Medicare. You know how well that's gone in the past.

Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain is talking about this problem. In fact what they're saying right now will make the problem worse. If you saw the first presidential debate, you saw Jim Lehrer try to pin these guys down on how the Wall Street bailout would affect their plans. You also saw them both duck the questions. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says McCain's plans would increase the national debt by $5 trillion over the next 10 years, while Obama's would increase the debt by $3.5 trillion. Right now one of the biggest unspoken campaign promises for both men is to offer you lots of tax cuts and/or new programs the country doesn't have the money for.

Like everyone else, we're praying that the U.S. bailout and the world's central banks can put out this financial fire, fast. Realistically, the country is going to be adding a lot to the national debt over the next few years. There's no way around it, and frankly balancing the budget during a recession is difficult and may not even be advisable. But once we've got the private sector's bad debts under control, we've got to get the federal government's debt under control, too. The long-term problem for the federal government is predictable, inevitable -- and completely solvable, if politicians show some leadership and the public starting demanding some real answers.