Here's something you won't hear anyone in Washington admit: we've only once made a principal payment on our debt in the last forty years. Just once! Today our federal debt clocks in at $17.3 trillion dollars. If we started paying off the current debt at $1,000,000 per minute, every minute of every day 365 days a year, it would take over 50 years to pay it off--longer if interest rates rise.
President Obama likes to say that our deficit has fallen at a faster rate than at any time since World War II. But what you won't hear in his speech is any mention of the fact that we're still adding half a trillion dollars to our national debt every single year. Republicans in Congress point to the sequester or their debt ceiling hostage-taking as proof that they're serious about our nation's fiscal future. What they won't mention is that at our current pace, we're nowhere near close to balancing the budget, let alone paying off our debt.
The pundits complain that Democrats and Republicans aren't compromising. I say they are colluding. Together, they're running a game on our kids by continuing to drive the federal government toward unprecedented levels of debt--100 percent of GDP by the middle of the next decade, according to the Campaign to Fix the Debt. It's a distorted brand of bipartisanship, and it is despicable.
Both sides together are spending us blind by maintaining the status quo. You can almost imagine a liberal Democrat conspiring with a Grover Norquist Republican: "You say, 'No tax increases' and I'll say, 'No spending cuts.' We'll fight like feral cats in front of the cameras, and meanwhile we'll both get what we promised our constituents. I'll go home and say, 'See, no cuts to programs!' and you go home and say, 'See, no tax increases!' We'll keep the entire show running by borrowing from the Chinese, and by the time that bill comes, we'll all be long gone."
This arrangement means no one has to make the tough compromises that would enable a real solution to our debt crisis. Both sides protect their interests, and the only thing that gets compromised is our nation's future.
The debt contracted by the federal government to be repaid by Americans at some point in the future is now more than six times the total of all the taxes the federal government collects in an entire year. Try personalizing this gap. How much did you earn last year? Multiply it by six, and then imagine that you owed the resulting figure. Pretty daunting.
We are now so far in debt that the annual interest payments alone cost more than the budgets for the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Education combined. Interest payments totaled more than six percent of all federal spending in fiscal year 2013, and that's with borrowing costs at nearly record low levels.
Our debt will have to be repaid. But not through the efforts of any living politician. Nope. The plan is... Well, there is no plan. Presumably it will just have to be repaid by our kids and grandkids.
Can our kids cut it?
The math is not encouraging. Many American students now leave college owing more than $26,000 in loans--and they are graduating into a struggling economy. Meanwhile, a back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals that the national debt per Americans under 30--the group most likely to have to pay it back--hovers near $140,000. The Can Kicks Back, a millennial advocacy group dedicated to defeating the federal debt, reports that future Americans will face a "lifetime tax of sixty cents on the dollar" if our fiscal mess isn't addressed.
You might wonder why any of this matters. Consider that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month that "further increases in [federal] debt could be especially harmful." Among the negative consequences CBO lists: higher borrowing costs; larger interest payments on the debt, which would crowd out other government spending and necessitate higher taxes; and less government flexibility in responding to unexpected crises, both foreign and domestic.
With catastrophe looming, signing pledges against new taxes or refusing to budge on entitlement reform won't suffice. The larger problem is that both sides finance their entrenched positions by borrowing. Maybe some people are willing to reform entitlement programs to maintain our current level of defense spending. Maybe some people are willing to pay more taxes to maintain our current spending on human services. Those are conversations worthy of honest, intelligent debate. But whatever you believe, it is undoubtedly disreputable and cowardly to "buy" any of those services at today's levels by borrowing and then stick our kids--born and unborn--with the bill.
The problem has reached astronomical proportions. Literally. It would take 57 Milky Way galaxies worth of stars to equal the number of dollars of national debt we've accrued. I, for one, believe that such an astronomical crisis deserves a solution equally as grand. More than fifty years ago, John F. Kennedy challenged America to send a man to the moon in less than a decade. I suggest that we commit ourselves to that same kind of spirit--a moon shot that puts us on a path not just to reducing our debt, but ultimately, to eliminating it.
This is a challenge that must be confronted by both parties, across branches of government, and administrations. Looking at the size of our debt relative to our GDP, all reasonable observers agree that paying it down will be the work of many decades. Consequently, it cannot be the job of just one party or president. It must be the work of the American people. It must be a common enterprise--bipartisan and multigenerational. And it's time to get started. Our nation--and our children--are depending on it.