The doomsday debt

MiamiHerald Editorial

Think of the movie I.O.U.S.A., which opened last week, as a kind of disaster movie for adults. Unfortunately, it's a documentary, not fiction.

The disaster is the national debt. Right now, it stands at $9.5 trillion, measured in terms of borrowed money that we must pay back. This is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

When all the unfunded future obligations to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and so forth are added in -- as they should be -- the total shortfall comes to a neat $53 trillion, give or take a few hundred billion. That's the bottom-line measure of how deeply we and our children and grandchildren are in hock as a nation.

The 87-minute film features David M. Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, who for years has been preaching that our fiscal irresponsibility is going to be the death of us. The problem is not just that we've racked up overwhelming amounts of debt because we are living far beyond our means -- it's that we have stopped trying to pay off those debts. We don't seem to care.

The likely result, according to I.O.U.S.A., is that those countries to which we owe money will eventually use their financial leverage to tell us what to do -- or else. At a screening he sponsored, billionaire investor Warren Buffett said he doesn't agree with this alarmist scenario, but he wants us to stop spending money we don't have.

Easier said than done. Our current federal budget is almost $500 billion in the red. That's bad enough, but what's worse is that no one is promoting a plan to balance future budgets.

Raise taxes? Cut Medicare benefits? Raise the Social Security retirement age? All the alternatives are politically unpopular. Ask yourself this: If a political leader advocated any of these measures, would you vote for him or her?