THE TREASURY DEPARTMENT reported last week that the national debt had surpassed $15 trillion, clocking in at precisely $15,033,607,255,920.32 as of the close of business Tuesday. Since President Obama's inauguration in January 2009, the amount owed by the federal government to its lenders has soared more than $4.4 trillion, an increase of 41 percent in less than three years.
To put those figures in perspective, consider these:
When Bill Clinton was president, the national debt rose by an annual average of $193 billion. When the profligate George W. Bush was in the White House, the yearly debt increases averaged $612 billion. On Obama's watch, by contrast, the federal debt has been skyrocketing by more than $1.5 trillion per year.
It took 40 presidents and nearly two centuries, from George Washington to Ronald Reagan, for the US government to accumulate $1.5 trillion in indebtedness. The 44th president -- aided and abetted by Congress -- enlarges the federal debt by that amount every 12 months.
Yet the political class has its knickers in a twist because the much-vaunted "supercommittee" has only until Thanksgiving to come up a plan for trimming the deficit by $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years.
Washington's refusal to take spending reduction seriously amounts to an almost criminal abdication of its responsibilities to the taxpayers, and politicians of both parties share in the guilt. As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama properly blasted what was then a $9 trillion national debt as "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic." Just weeks after moving into the White House, he vowed that by the end of his first term he would cut the $1.3 trillion federal budget deficit in half.
"We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation," Obama told a White House summit on fiscal responsibility. "You don't spend what you don't have."
But Washington continues not only to spend what it doesn't have, but to do so at a record-setting pace. In the fiscal year that ended on September 30, the federal government burned through a staggering $3.6 trillion -- "well above amounts recorded before 2009," as the Congressional Budget Office dryly noted. The budget deficits of the past three years -- $1.416 trillion (2009), $1.294 trillion (2010), and $1.298 trillion (2011) -- have been the largest in American history, whether measured in dollars or as a percentage of GDP.
For all the hyperventilating in recent months about "draconian" cuts and "slashing spending" and the "brutal" scope of the automatic reductions that are supposed to take effect if the supercommittee doesn't agree on a plan, the bottom line is unchanged: The federal budget, like the federal establishment it funds, is grotesquely overweight and getting fatter by the day. The frantic stimulus spendathon has done nothing to heal the economy, and it is ludicrous that anyone can speak of the government's current "austerity" with a straight face. The deal that raised the federal debt ceiling last summer didn't impose austerity on Washington's budget-makers. It averted austerity.
Sequestration -- the triggering of spending cuts if the supercommittee fails to come up with the required deficit trims -- will barely slow the spending train. Between 2013 and 2021, the federal budget is expected to grow by another $1.7 trillion. And if the sequester trigger is pulled? By another $1.6 trillion. If that's "brutal", I'm Katy Perry.
Like any morbidly obese patient, the federal behemoth needs to go on a diet. Ultimately the only prescription for reducing the government's parade of yearly deficits and mounting debt without suffocating economic growth is to cut spending. Politicians find that a frightening prospect, and special interests and pressure groups don't hesitate to exploit their fear.
The budget deficits of the first three years of the Obama administration have been the largest in US history, both in absolute terms and as a share of GDP.
But kicking the out-of-control spending habit isn't impossible. Other governments (and earlier administrations) have done it, and with excellent results. Under Prime Minister Jean Chretien in the 1990s, Canada slashed spending across the board, reduced its federal payroll by 45,000 jobs, and privatized the national railway and air-traffic-control system. The result, as Fred Barnes recently chronicled in National Affairs, was an economic rebound. A deficit of nearly $37 billion turned into a $3 billion surplus, and a national economy that had been growing at an anemic 1% kicked into overdrive, expanding by an annual average of 3.4% between 1994 and 2006.
The longer Washington avoids serious and permanent spending cuts, the higher the debt will climb and the more painful the ultimate reckoning will be. "We cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences," the president said in 2009. It was true then. It's even truer now.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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