Like a giant time bomb ticking away in reverse, the United States national debt marches upward, with no ceiling in sight and no credible solution to slow its skyrocketing trajectory. We add $1 million to the total every 77 seconds.
You will see and hear news commentary about this event in the next few weeks. The media, obsessed with big, round numbers, will trumpet the dubious milestone “U.S. National Debt Reaches $20,000,000,000,000.”
That’s 20 trillion, with a “t”, a number so big one can barely wrap the brain around it.
Politicians talk about reducing the annual deficit, the difference between what the government spends and takes in each fiscal year. That amount runs $670,000,000,000; that’s $670 billion, with a “b.”
The national debt is the cumulative total of all the annual deficits added together.
Both numbers are expected to rise as more baby boomers retire and apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits, the largest slices of the government spending pie besides defense.
When I traveled to New York in April 2014, the National Debt Clock on the corner of 44th Street and 6th Avenue listed the debt at a bit more than $17.5 trillion. Since then, our nation has racked up $2.5 trillion more. I keep a picture of the debt clock near my desk to remind me how far and fast these numbers are growing.
There are many possible solutions. They include raising taxes, removing the Social Security earnings limit, raising the retirement age, changing the payroll formula for current earners, and allowing investment choice so beneficiaries may earn a higher return.
The real answer? Require a balanced federal budget. It might require a constitutional convention, called by the states, to amend the Constitution.
Our slow-growth “Goldilocks” economy is supporting our burgeoning debt load for now. Interest rates remain low and stock prices are high. Running big deficits and growing the national debt seem like the thing to do.
This will continue until financial markets, in their collective wisdom, deem this practice unacceptable. Then it will not be OK. We will then discover the solution to a very real problem, and it may not be pretty.
The United States just celebrated 241 years as a representative democracy, with a remarkable track record of solving difficult problems. Let’s hope we’re up to the task on this one.