Paul Greenberg

For most of us, astronomical numbers like these might as well be in light years as in U.S. dollars. They're hard to grasp. But it's clear enough they mean nothing good.

All of us -- maybe even the federal government's own economists, the ones who have to rationalize the president's funny figures -- must know that a day of reckoning must come, the piper must be paid, or whatever phrase you prefer. Every culture has such a proverb as surely as it has profligates.

Payment for our excesses can be deferred only so long, Even if the payment is made in devalued dollars, the price for our free-spending ways will be high, the consequences painful, and the pretense that this administration knows what it's doing harder and harder to maintain.

The administration's current budget, from which all these figures were mined, is a recipe for crippling stagflation, the kind that seized the country during the Carter years, or even worse. Like a full-scale recession slipping into a decade-long depression like Japan's, aka the Lost Decade.

The time to avoid such a result is now -- by recognizing the danger and acting to remove it. Instead of pretending everything's going to be just hunky-dory if we'll leave all these matters to our community organizer in the White House.

Any resemblance between the course of the American economy in recent years and a diver going off a steep cliff is not coincidental. There's a clear reason for the whale of a bellyflop these figures portend for the national economy. That reason is our out-of-control spending -- and leaders who act as if the day of reckoning can be put off indefinitely.

The downturn of the last few years now known as the Great Recession could prove only a foretaste of the pain that lies ahead if Congress and the president don't get the country's fiscal house in order, which won't be easy.

However abstract a row of figures in a budget table may seem, these numbers translate into ever higher interest rates, growing unemployment, and an economic model that's unsustainable even in the short run. Somebody needs to turn this ship around. It's headed for the falls.

Not all this president's funny figures can disguise what lies ahead if we don't change course. The funniest of them may be that projected 5-percent-a-year growth rate. Or maybe that's the saddest part of the president's assurances. For it indicates just how out-of-touch he is with the economic realities. Or pretends to be in order to make his budget seem realistic.

It's hard to believe that someone as intelligent as the current president of the United States can't read these figures and understand their import: He's diving into the Grand Canyon of budget shortfalls. And taking the country with him.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.