Rick Berman

Halloween is a fun time for kids and grownups alike. Kids get to dig into mountains of Mounds and tons of Twizzlers, while adults get to play dress up.

What was the scariest costume on the racks this year? It’s not Twilight’s vapid vampires or Harry Potter’s wimpy wizards. No, this year the scariest costume was both simpler and less supernatural. You could have made it at home yourself, with nothing more than a T-shirt and a permanent marker.

What is this frightening get-up? I’ll give you a hint: What starts with the unlucky number 13 and has 12 zeroes trailing it?

Our national debt, of course.

In seconds you can whip up the most terrifying threat facing our nation. Just pull out a blank shirt and write the number $13,000,000,000,000 on it. Below that write “National Debt.” Voila! A figure most foul. Your neighbors will scream in terror!

Or at least, they would if they understood just what a $13 trillion debt means for America. The consequences are dire, and not just for our children or grandchildren: They could be devastating for you and me.

First, we need to understand the scope of the problem. Though we might instinctively realize that a trillion is a lot – it’s bigger than a million or a billion, after all – it’s hard to comprehend just how much “a lot” is. Let’s put it this way: A million seconds amounts to 12 days or so, while a trillion seconds is more than 30,000 years.

What does this huge number (multiplied by 13) mean for our nation?

For starters, it means that we’re spending an incredible amount of money on the debt’s interest alone; for fiscal year 2010, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the debt’s interest cost us $228 billion. By 2020, the President’s Office of Management and Budget says we could be paying over $900 billion just on interest for past borrowing—almost as much as we’ll be spending on national defense!

Being forced to commit that much cash to interest payments reduces our nation’s ability to respond to emergencies. Indeed, both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have called the national debt a threat to our national security.

But the growing debt won’t only make our nation less secure--it could pinch your paycheck as well. In 2010, the federal government took in just enough revenue to cover entitlement programs (like Medicare and Social Security) and interest on the debt; everything else—from NASA to national defense; from the FBI to the FEC—went on the nation’s credit card. If Congress can’t stop spending, they’ll need to bring in more money. That could mean higher income taxes or a “value added tax” that raises the price of food, clothing, and just about everything else you buy.

As we continue to struggle with high unemployment rates and decreased consumer demand due to the poor economy, the last thing we can afford to do is drastically increase taxes. Higher rates won’t just fall on the “rich”; the scope of the problem is simply too large.

What to do? Well, visitors to DefeatTheDebt.com have been voting on their preferred solutions for the last month, and they have made it clear we need to focus on budget cuts: They want to freeze spending at 2007 levels, freeze the hiring of federal employees, and make federal employees contribute more of their own money for their pensions. That’s easier said than done, of course, but putting the kibosh on new entitlement spending like the massive (and massively expensive) health care reform law is one no-brainer.

Erskine Bowles, co-chair of President Obama’s debt commission and former Clinton chief of staff, has said that the national debt could “destroy our country.” If we continue down our current path there might be an even more frightening costume in the country’s future: an insolvent, bankrupt America. Now that really is a scary thought.


Rick Berman

Rick Berman is the President of Berman and Company, a Washington, D.C.–based public affairs firm specializing in research, communications, and creative advertising.