National debt reaches dizzying heights without raising eyebrows

Berl Falbaum


That number represents the national debt when I started writing this column.

About four hours later, the debt had  increased almost $105 million — $104,920,899 —  to reach $34,059,003,967,653.

It grows so fast that it is almost impossible to write down the amount at any given moment. Try it by Googling “national debt clock.”

The national discussion about the debt is generally vague and nobody seems to care very much. We have taken the attitude: Out of sight, out of mind. If we don’t acknowledge the problem, it doesn’t exist.

The media generally cover the politics of the debt debate but very rarely address the substance of what the government owes or what it means if it continues to increase unchecked.

Conservatives in Congress are wrong in threatening (at this writing) a government shutdown if the deficit isn’t addressed, but they are right that we cannot and should not permit the debt to continue to grow.

We have kicked the proverbial can down the road so many times that the can is now pretty much mangled; not much left of the can. Even if we started paying off the debt today, it would take decades to put the country back in the black.

The even larger question is: How do you pay off $34-plus trillion? The nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Foundation provided some fascinating facts on what $34 trillion means. Here are some of them:

--$34 trillion is roughly equal to the values of the economies of China, Japan, Germany, India and the United Kingdom -- combined.

--The deficit amounts to $252,000 per household or $99,000 for every person in the U.S.

--If every U.S. household contributed $1,000 a month to pay off the deficit, it would take more than 21 years.

--The debt is enough to cover the cost of a university four-year degree for every high school graduate for 103 years.

--Every day we spent $1.8 billion in interest and in ten years interest will be more than double what it is today. Interest will become the fastest growing part of the federal budget.

Forbes magazine warned two years ago when the debt stood at $28 trillion that, “The U.S. national debt is rising at a pace never seen in the history of America.”

The, which is located in New York City and tracks the U.S. debt and other major financial indexes, predicts that the deficit will reach $89 trillion by 2029 -- just six years away -- even without increased spending.

Who’s to blame? Both parties.

The deficit totaled $10.6 trillion when Barack Obama took office in 2009; $19.9 trillion when Donald Trump became president in 2017; and $27.8 trillion when Joe Biden became commander-in-chief in 2021.

This is not to suggest that these presidents are solely responsible for the deficits. Congress, of course, which has appropriation responsibilities also deserves much, if not most, of the blame.

Left unchecked, we face the possibility of a major decrease in our standard of living; higher interest rates which would slow the economy; a stock market crash; and perhaps devaluation of the dollar which could lead to higher costs for goods and services and a recession along with more inflation.

Some day -- the financial wizards don’t know exactly when -- we will have to face the music, to use a cliché, by either cutting spending or raising taxes.  Both are anathema for politicians.

True, raising taxes or cutting spending come with their own problems, but the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.

"We are projected to spend more on interest payments in the next decade than we will on the entire defense budget," said Maya Macguineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “How can anyone possibly think this trend is sustainable? We're running off the rails at an alarming rate. We need to do better."

The financial deficit is peanuts compared to the deficit of the political qualities we need to build a stable and secure financial future.

Given what is needed from our “leaders” and the state of our politics in Washington, the only thing we can be sure of is that the deficit will continue to grow and grow uncontrollably.  

Solving this fiscal crisis -- and it is a crisis -- will require political courage, foresight, statesmanship, leadership, compromise, and a commitment to apolitical governing.

I’m sure you noticed, we don’t have a huge supply of these qualities in Washington.


Berl Falbaum is a longtime political reporter and author.