The National Debt: Why It's Hard to Care

Posted on 24. Oct, 2009 by in Uncategorized


(image from image from iandavid's photostream)

Have you ever seen a five-year-old try and guess the age of an adult?

“Umm… a hundred!” (Shake head ‘no.’) “15!” (Uh-uh.) “Well then, 83!” (All those in hearing range smile affectionately at the precocious kid and 35-year-old Aunt Jenny isn’t even offended)

You know why this happens? Because unless Aunt Jenny is close to the same age as the child-in-question–lets call him Tommy–the kid can’t quantify the answer. Tommy has no experience in numbers that high. 26, 94, 48, they’re all the same to a him: bigger than the number he is.

So when reading the Mort Zuckerman’s column about our country’s debt (which he says Obama is only furthering), I find myself feeling like Tommy guessing ages. Then, I find I don’t care.

Zuckerman writes:

As a result [of the massive government spending sparked by the global financial crisis], the deficit quadrupled from $459 billion in 2008 to $1.85 trillion this year. It has gone from 3.2% of gross domestic product to 13.1%, twice the post-World War II record of 6% in 1983 under President Reagan. What’s more, the debt surge is unlike the one that accompanied WWII in that it will not be temporary.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reckons that the deficit will run for a decade and will still exceed $1.2 trillion in 2019. By that time, the United States will have virtually doubled its national debt, to over $17 trillion…

For one thing, the figures are large enough that they aren’t real–when’s the last time you counted your way to 1.2 trillion? The numbers just don’t mean anything to me. What’s the difference between 459 billion and 17 trillion? Can we measure this in five-dollar footlongs I can barely afford so I might understand please?

Secondly, when’s the last time there wasn’t a massive national debt? According to the National Debt Clock FAQ page, we’ve been over $1 trillion in the red since I was born in 1983. It’s relativism. We’ve never known it any other way. For those of my generation, the debt will always be massive, there will continue to be a yearly deficit and Leno will be un-funny most of the time.

It’s not that I think Zuckerman is wrong or right, it’s that I simply don’t see the connection to me. I could pinch my pennies. I could max out three credit cards. Either way, the figure on the national debt clock will continue to rise as if paced by the tick-tick of a metronome.

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