This is the sort of lost opportunity that makes you agree with Winston Churchill that democracy is the 'worst' form of government...except for any other that has been tried over the ages.
First, an important question: "How many other times in our nation's history has our national debt been really, really, really very large, (relative to GDP, that is)?"
Try 5...the Revolutionary War period, 1776-1800 (mainly because we didn't have much of a government budget per se back then and we were scrounging for every bit of debt we could find from the Dutch and rich Americans to win independence); the Civil War at 22% of GDP; World War I at 35% of GDP; the Really Great Big Depression at 44% and then the granddaddy of them all, until now at least, World War II at 122% of GDP.
Notice any similarities between most of these periods of advanced debt? They were times of war when we were forced to borrow exorbitant amounts of debt from whatever source we could find to 1) gain our freedom; 2) maintain the Union and 3) protect our nation from insane dictators who wanted to take over the world, or at least Europe and Asia, before they got to us. These were times when the US has had to throw all fiscal caution to the wind to maintain our freedom and survival as a nation.
We are not anywhere close to being in an analogous position nowadays. We are fighting the terrorists all over the world but perhaps our biggest threat is coming from within, namely our inability to act like grown-ups and manage our federal budget like patriotic men and women.
In each case, the national debt was paid down close to zero, or at least by 50%, in a matter of a few years, a decade at most. There is absolutely no hope today, or even a mention of a plan by either major political party in Washington,to accomplish this necessary goal by 2019.
The current fiscal debacle we are going through right now as a nation begs the question: "Just how many chances are we going to have to get it right?"
We are now in two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, but neither can compare to the massive amounts of manpower and materiel that were mobilized, on a relative basis, and thrown at the British in 1776 or between the North and the South from 1861-1865. Nor do they compare in scope to our fight against the Germans in the "War to End All Wars" (not quite, it seems) and then the Germans, again, Italians and the Japanese in the true Great World War II.
We are not in a national debt crisis because we are involved in a massive world war to save democracy from terrorism, at least not to the scale of the two previous world wars...yet. We have been completely irresponsible with our federal spending by living beyond our means for 47 out of the past 50 years on programs across-the-board.
We can blame the officials we elect all we want for being nitwits and idiots but they are just doing what at least 50%+1 of the majority of Americans want them to do: 'Spend money on me and tax someone else, or borrow from someone else like the Chinese or our children, to do it.'
You can help change things by telling people to do otherwise.
Believe it or not, we had a golden opportunity in 1983, with the passage of the last "Save Social Security Act", (don't kid yourself...there is another one coming around the corner pretty soon like before the end of President Obama's first term in 2012). And, believe it or not, had we done what that bill actually promised to do in 1983, we would have virtually NO national debt to worry about at this very moment in time.
And then we could have honestly said that we had incurred abnormally high levels of national debt 6 times and successfully paid them all back down to more manageable levels in a short amount of time.
This is not a joke, I promise.
Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York wrote a column in the New York Times, May, 1988, (click on "Conspirators, Trillions, Limos in the Night") that pointed out one of the underlying goals of the new Social Security legislation was to buy up the existing national debt over the next 30 years and, in effect, retire it all. ALL of it.
After all, what would have been the purpose of generating close to $200 billion in surplus Social Security payroll tax payments this year by you and everyone else if it was not to retire the debt? We could have just matched higher annual out-flows of payments with higher inflows of Social Security payroll taxes and been done with it.
But, we screwed up and spent it all on current consumption and are now left with an $11 trillion national debt, and counting, plus all of these future obligations to Social Security built up in the so-called 'trust funds', which are not true trust funds but IOUs.
As it was planned, even if we did pay down all of the federal debt over the past 26 years, there would still be the Social Security obligations that would need to be redeemed when the Boomers started to retire, like beginning in 2008 at age 62, but guess what? We would not be paying close to $260 billion in net interest each year to private sector holders of federal debt. The national debt would be zero today and there would be no discussion about whether the Chinese would be worried about the stability of the US dollar now that they are holding over $1 trillion of our existing debt.
We would have been in far better shape to be able to handle this current economic shock and had far more options to get back on track in a shorter amount of time.
Don't count on another Social Security surplus windfall to bail us out this time around. Or any other sleight of hand or magic pixie dust sprinkled about by any politician in Washington. This is going to require hard slugging for many decades to get out of this fiscal mess we are now in.