Debt: Our 9 Trillion Pound Gorilla

BY Susan J. Douglas

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The human and financial costs of the Iraq War, the economy and Bush’s debt ought to be the mantra for Democrats running for Congress.

Who would have thought that we might ever miss Ross Perot?

Squawking at us with his graphs and pie charts about the dangers of deficit spending and the mounting national debt, Perot was especially outraged that the debt had gone from $1 trillion in 1980 to $4 trillion by 1992.

He got people’s attention about mortgaging our children’s futures and won 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential race, the most for a third party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. (This despite being featured on the cover of Weekly World News with space aliens.)

As we brace for the Swiftboating to come this summer, I find myself nostalgic for a Perot infomercial where he would make clear that my daughter, or my friend’s infant–all of us, as of now–each carries nearly $31,000 of this debt. And we don’t owe it only to each other.

We are in major hock to China, Japan and other foreign countries. Given the subprime disaster, rising unemployment, a reeling stock market, a teetering construction industry and considerable under-reported inflation–you know, all the markings of the “r” word–it is striking that the debt is not a major campaign issue for the Democrats.

Today the national debt is $9.2 trillion. And hardly anyone is talking about this. We’ve had rabbinical debates about healthcare and moronic charges and counter-charges about who’s ready “on day one” to be president. But the poor bastard who walks into the Oval Office next January will confront the $9 trillion-plus pound gorilla sitting in the room.

That gorilla has become obscenely engorged because of George W. Bush and his cronies. His stupefying $3.1 trillion budget proposed for 2009, with an 8 percent increase for the Pentagon and more than $400 billion in deficit spending, got minimal coverage, unveiled as it was on the eve of Super Tuesday, when 60 percent of the network news coverage focused on the campaign.

Almost immediately under Bush’s watch, the annual deficit–which each year gets piled onto our overall, accumulated debt–started soaring. A major contributor to this, of course, has been the occupation of Iraq. Remember when Donald Rumsfeld suggested the war would cost $50 billion to $60 billion? Remember when White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay projected the cost at more like $200 billion, and got canned? A recent estimate by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes place the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan at $3 trillion. They actually count everything, not just the immediate day-to-day costs, but all of the indirect and deferred costs like healthcare and disability payments for veterans.

But even the crippling human and financial costs of the Iraq War have taken a back seat in presidential politics to “the economy”–as if the two are different subjects. They aren’t, and the Democrats, especially those running for Congress, should make this, and the Bush debt, their mantra. They would do well to make the kind of simple visual comparison columnist David Leonhardt recently did in the New York Times. Taking a more conservative approach to the war costs than Stiglitz and Bilmes, Leonhardt still came up with a price tag of $1.2 trillion.

What could Americans get instead for that money? How about universal preschool for all 3 year olds and 4 year olds, at the bargain price of $35 billion? How about universal healthcare, a rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure, actually securing our ports as recommended by the 9/11 Commission, and a new “war” on poverty?

All of this and more have been denied the American people because of Bush’s borrow-and-spend war spree, coupled with his Marie Antoinette tax cuts. And the Bush debt imposes binding constraints on any desired initiatives of the next president, as Bill Clinton learned when he inherited the first Bush’s deficit pile-ups. In fiscal year 2006, the interest on the national debt was $406 billion; imagine pissing that away on your Visa bill.

Debt is the connective tissue between the disastrous war in Iraq, which most Americans consider a mistake (or worse), and the economy, which most Americans feel is in the toilet. “Borrow and Squander” or, if that’s too many syllables, “Borrow and Waste,” should be the mantra chanted at Republicans–especially those who claim to know little about the economy yet want to stay in Iraq (and other war zones, no doubt) for the next 100 years.


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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and an In These Times columnist. Her latest book is Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism's Work is Done (2010).

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