Moveon.org, the propaganda arm of Howard Dean’s failed presidential campaign, produced a TV commercial about our national debt. It offered an unusually close encounter with honesty. The 30-second spot showed little kids toiling on assembly lines, in dingy sweatshops and on grimy loading docks. Kiddy labor scenes flashed across the screen long enough to trip our what’s-wrong-with-this-picture alarms. Then we got the dramatic punch line: who do we think will repay the trillion dollars in debt the current administration has run up? The answer was so obvious even a flint-hearted Republican could get it. It will be the adorable little urchins in the commercial.
It’s true, our children will have to repay the Bush administration’s debts. What moveon.org left out was that the kids will also have to repay the six trillion we borrowed under Clinton, Bush I, Reagan and all their predecessors. Now that we are fighting The Dream War, the everlasting War Against Terror, half trillion dollar deficits stretch away into the future as far as you care to look. Those kids are on the hook for that as well.
The national debt at this writing in early 2004 stands at around $7 trillion. That’s $24,000 for each American man, woman and child. Quite a bit, but less than some of us owe on our SUV’s. It doesn’t seem so bad. At least we can comprehend the number.
But wait, there’s more.
The gap between Social Security and Medicare commitments and projected revenues don’t count in the $24,000. Include just current participants in the system (payers and collectors) and you add another $41 trillion. Now your part of the bill is up to $165,000. It won’t get you much of a house, but it’s a really nice SUV.
And that doesn’t count future participants. So maybe we can leave out Junior and Sis for now. But when they come on board, there will be another $31 trillion due for them.
But wait, there’s still more.
We still haven’t added in the Uncle Sam’s other unfunded liabilities. Future promises for pensions, benefits, subsidies and a whole host of government goodies total another $44 trillion.
And more still.
If the government ever has to honor its loan guarantees, the decimal point moves another place to the right. Should Fannie Mae drive off a bridge in the derivatives swamp, like the geniuses at LTCM did a few years ago, our liability explodes. We could see a dollar melt down. Mr. Greenspan’s code words for it are “systemic risk.”
The grand total, without the kids’ Social Security and without having to pay off any guaranteed loans is $92 trillion. Let me write that out for you: $92,000,000,000,000.
“Wow”, you might say, or something like “Wow.” I said, “Holy S**t.”
But you might also say, “So what?” Because numbers like 92 trillion are too large to grasp.
Breaking the number down into dollars per American household gets us to a figure we can wrap our minds around. According to the 2000 census there are 105 million households in the U.S. Each household’s share of our $92 trillion in promises is $876,000. If you got a 40-year mortgage at 5% on $876,000 the monthly payment would be $4225. That would pay it off in the year 2044, if you didn’t start “taking out equity” to pay your VISA bill.
A monthly payment of $4225 from every household in the country is about double the current U.S. government budget. In other words, taxes would have to double and all other spending cease to pay our debt off in 40 years. I offer these figures not to suggest a payoff scheme but to show why our national debt will never be paid. We can’t afford it.
In a world where professional politicians buy votes with borrowed money, any politician seriously suggesting we pay off our debt would end his own career faster than you can say “systemic risk.” Instead, we can expect proposals that are in keeping with the myths, fraud, lies and flapdoodle that we have come to cherish from our leaders.
I have one that might catch on. Let’s just change the measurement unit like we’ve done with the dollar since 1912. If the inch had shrunk as much as the dollar has since then I’d be 115 feet tall. I would certainly not be receiving thousands of e-mails mocking the length of my reproductive apparatus.
Obviously, a big unit is what we need. Something astronomical. And we just happen to have one. Among astronomers the distance between the earth and the sun is called an Astronomical Unit. An AU is 93 million miles. (How far is that? At 100 miles an hour, driving around the clock, it would take 106 years to drive that far in your Hummer.) If we laid dollar bills end to end, about a trillion of them would form a line of dollars one Astronomical Unit long. There’s no need for hairsplitting precision at that price.
How convenient! We can base our new monetary measure on the old reliable Astronomical Unit. We’ll define it as the number of dollar bills laid end to end that will reach from Washington, D.C. to the sun. We can forget having to use 13 and 14 digit numbers. We’ll call them IOU’s, Intergenerational Oppression Units. One IOU equals one trillion dollars. Using IOU’s instead of dollars we avoid leaving our children embarrassingly large debts that look like this —
All they will have to pay are some measly IOU’s.
A few years of concerted effort in the public youth indoctrination camps should erase any notion that IOUs are enormous debts — debts to be repaid in sweat, toil and pain. Switching to IOUs will help us train our kids to line up like little lambs for sheering. Long after we’ve departed this old ball, they’ll pay for our conquest of the world, for our comfy retirements, for our Valium, Viagra and Prozac. They may even pay for our trip to Mars. And with a proper tax-funded, compulsory education, they won’t even know it.