Daily Herald
Fuzzy math+tax cut+health care=$9 trillion debt
By Burt Constable | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 6/12/2008 12:09 AM

I'm old enough to remember when gas sold for $1.42 a gallon, and our federal government spent $223 billion of our surplus paying down our national debt for the third straight year.

Ah, remember the good old days of 2000?

If you had bought Halliburton stock back then, you'd have increased your money tenfold. But this column isn't about how much money you didn't make. It's about how much money you owe because of our national debt.

As I write this, you owe $30,940.77. My family of five owes $154,703.85.

Of course, in the time it took you to read this far (and be glad you aren't the Constables), your share of the tab for our national debt went up. It will continue to rise, even if you stop reading in mid-sentence to go buy Halliburton stock.

Back in 2001, at the urging of President Richard Nixon's old budget director Bob Mayo and his Bartlett neighbor Kevin Corry, a retired teacher working with the watchdog Concord Coalition, I wrote a column bemoaning the then-record $5.7 trillion national debt.

Today, a wistful Corry says a $5.7 trillion debt would be "wonderful." Things have gotten worse.

The abbreviated history of the national debt is that it topped the $1 billion mark in 1863 while Abe Lincoln won a war. Under Republican Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress, the national debt tripled -- first topping $1 trillion in 1982 and rising to $2.8 trillion by the end of Reagan's second term. It rose to $4.2 trillion under one term of George H.W. Bush. It edged up to $5.7 trillion during eight years of Bill Clinton, when the Democratic president and a Republican Congress balanced budgets and paid down the debt.

Since George W. Bush took office, our national debt has jumped to $9.4 trillion, and adds more than $1.5 billion each day. The Concord Coalition (www.concordcoalition.org), a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency founded by Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas, Republican Sen. Warren Rudman and former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson, used to tote a traveling Debt Clock around the nation to get people's attention.

"I remember making a big deal about a $4 trillion debt," recalls Robert Bixby, Concord's executive director. The clock met the same fate as $1.42 gas, which is just as well since the clock had only 13 digits and wouldn't have been able to record the $10 trillion debt we should rack up by the time a new president takes the oath of office.

"It's unbelievable," Corry says. "I think these people in government have just totally failed us. They know these problems are there and they don't do anything about it."

That goes for the state's budget woes, too. So, have we given up the fight against debt?

"No, I wouldn't describe it that way. I think it hasn't begun," Bixby says. "That's the problem."

Politicians who know voters want health care and tax cuts don't campaign on a platform of cutting programs and raising taxes.

"The politicians are only doing what the public asks, and we need the public to ask for a sound democracy and ask how we are going to pay for what they are promising," says Sheila Weinberg, a suburban accountant who founded the Institute for Truth in Accounting (www.truthinaccounting.org) with headquarters in Northbrook. "The voters should be demanding: 'How are we going to get out of this mess?'"

While we have squandered opportunities to take on the problem in a forthright way, Bixby hasn't given up hope.

"I think both McCain and Obama have the capacity to do that," Bixby says.

In the meantime, that $9.4 trillion debt isn't as bad as you think. It's much worse.

When you add up the unfunded future payments our government has promised to seniors, baby b boomers and others, the debt is more like $56 trillion, Weinberg says.

That means my family of five owes about $923,890. And I'm never going to be able to pay that unless I take a page from our government playbook and pass along our tab to future generations.